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Review of aviation & safety regulation of remotely piloted aircraft systems May 2018 CASA paper

CASA releases its review of aviation and safety regulation of remotely piloted aircraft

Current industry estimates put the number of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) in Australia at around 150,000. In response to the regulatory challenges presented by this burgeoning sector of aviation in Australia, on 11 May 2018 the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) released its 23 page “Review of Aviation Safety Regulation of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems.”

After taking public submissions in relation to a discussion paper issued last year on RPA regulation, CASA has identified several major findings necessary to the ongoing development and improvement of RPA regulation in Australia.

We discuss key findings from the CASA report below.

CASA findings
Registration of RPA

CASA supports mandatory RPA registration in Australia for RPAs weighing more than 250 grams. However, before excluding these RPA from registration entirely, CASA will complete further research into the potential of such RPA causing serious injury to humans. This approach is important to ensure the regulatory framework for RPA encourages accountability, by recognising the safety risk posed by RPA of all sizes.

A clear benefit of an expanded registration system arises in the context of incidents or accidents involving RPA, for instance where incidents cause damage to property or injury to humans. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has advised CASA that a registration system would assist with its identification of owners of RPA involved in such incidents.

CASA has already commenced discussions with RPA manufacturers to see whether barcodes may be affixed to RPA, around which a registration and electronic-identification system can be designed.

Increased registration of RPA not only increases accountability for RPA use, but may also provide an important pathway to recovery against a wider range of RPA operators involved in property damage or personal injury claims.

Education of RPA operators

Currently, operators of RPA weighing less than 150 kilograms and used recreationally are not subject to any mandatory education or testing. The current regulatory regime does require certain commercial and large RPA operators to hold a licence or operator’s certificate, which are obtained after undertaking specific training and achieving a pass mark on a subsequent examination.

CASA has backed its existing training and education requirement for the operators currently required to hold a licence or operator’s certificate, but it has flagged its intention to support the introduction of separate online courses for RPA operators who are not currently required to obtain a licence or operator’s certificate. It would require such RPA operators to undertake an online course followed by a quiz requiring a minimum pass mark.

The number of unique users identified by CASA that voluntarily access RPA regulatory and safety information through its website or mobile app is a fraction of the estimated 150,000 RPA currently in Australia. A step towards further education of a greater range of RPA operators is important to ensuring the regulatory safety framework effectively communicated throughout the community.

Developing technology and improving data in relation to Australian airspace

In January 2018 alone there were 11 reported near encounters between RPA and manned aircraft, with more than half occurring within 20 nautical miles of Sydney Airport. This is in addition to the 151 near encounters recorded for 2017, with a similar portion occurring close to Sydney Airport.

Geo-fencing technology is currently employed by a handful of RPA manufacturers. Geo-fencing creates a virtual perimeter around a real-world geographic area, which also has the potential to be updated in real time. For instance, the technology can be implemented around aerodromes, to effectively prohibit the use of geo-fencing enabled RPA within its airspace.

CASA will look to the continuing development of geo-fencing technology to assist with the prevention of RPA operation in restricted airspace in Australia.

The benefits for avoiding RPA related air incidents and property damage are obvious, however CASA has recognised that realising the full potential of this technology requires industry wide adoption along with easily accessible and usable restricted airspace datasets. As an initial step, CASA has begun engaging with Airservices Australia with an eye to developing standard data for use by RPA manufacturers in applications such as geo-fencing.

The rollout of geo-fencing is currently limited by its high cost and the current low implementation of the technology in RPA. CASA will need to engage closely with the key stakeholders in this space to ensure that if mandatory geo-fencing is adopted, it will receive the necessary support within the RPA industry to make it an effective tool for safety.

International developments and CASAs roadmap to integrate RPA into Australian Airspace

CASA is actively looking to governments abroad for cues on RPA safety and regulation. It has suggested it will continue to engage in international forums to help inform its own regulatory framework in this fast-growing sector of aviation. Given the substantial financial resources associated with the ongoing development of RPA regulation, information and technology sharing in global forums will be important for Australia’s own innovation and responsiveness to emerging RPA trends.

Importantly, a CASA RPA roadmap is currently in development which will provide the steps it sees necessary to move towards the key findings in the report, but also ultimately to the safe integration of RPAs into the Australian aviation system.

The RPA regulatory framework has been in development since its inception in 2002, however CASA recognises there are still shortcomings. The RPA roadmap due for completion at the end of 2018 will give a fair indication of how quickly these shortcomings will be met and whether the current upward trend in reported RPA incidents will be effectively curbed.

To date the ATSB reports there have been no collisions between an RPA and manned aircraft in Australia. CASAs ongoing response to the increased number of RPA in Australia is essential to ensuring this remains the case.

This article was written by Matthew Brooks, Partner and Adrian Lee, Solicitor. 

Matthew Brooks

P: +61 2 9334 8740

E: mbrooks@hwle.com.au

Important Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is of a general nature only and is based on the law as of the date of publication. It is not, nor is intended to be legal advice. If you wish to take any action based on the content of this publication we recommend that you seek professional advice.