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A proposal to relax regulations controlling the commercial use of drones – or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – could spell cost savings and productivity gains for Australian mining companies.

By cutting red tape, the proposed changes will make it easier for companies to use UAVs, which have the potential to reduce the cost and time spent on the monitoring and maintenance of mines.

UAVs have already become commonplace in Australia’s agricultural sector, which has seen an increase in productivity through precision agriculture and remote monitoring. Until now, though, the use of UAVs in Australia’s mining sector has been relatively limited. This is at least in part due to the restrictive licencing requirements under the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth) (CASR).

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is now in the process of reforming the licencing requirements that have restricted the commercial use of small UAVs.

Current requirements

Under Part 101 of CASR, an organisation is required to hold an Operator’s Certificate to operate a small UAV (less than 100 kilograms) for a commercial purpose. ‘Commercial purpose’ is interpreted very broadly by CASA to include use in a commercial context such as the operation of a mine. In addition, the organisation is required to appoint a certain person (or persons) to the position of chief UAV controller and maintenance controller.

Once these requirements are satisfied, the use of the UAV is still subject to Standard Operating Conditions. Under these Conditions, a UAV cannot fly:

  • above 400 feet;
  • over populous areas;
  • within 30 metres of a person not associated with the flight operation;
  • within 3 nautical miles of an aerodrome;
  • within a controlled airspace; or
  • at night,

unless approval is obtained from CASA.

Proposed amendments

CASA is finalising proposed amendments to Part 101 of CASR that will remove the licencing requirements for a UAV that weighs less than 2 kilograms and is used for a commercial purpose.

The amendments will permit the unlicenced operation of these UAVs where:

  • the UAV is flown in Standard Operating Conditions (that is, the Conditions outlined above); and
  • the operator maintains visual line of sight with the UAV.

CASA has noted that unlicenced operators of these UAVs will not be able to apply for approval to fly outside of Standard Operating Conditions; to do so, they will be required to obtain the relevant licence.

CASA will table the proposed amendments at its next Executive Council meeting, in February 2016, with a view to the amendments being passed into law in the second half of 2016.