Micro drone big issue: the 30 metre rule and micro drones.
Published: 20 April 2020
Ass-covering disclaimer: please note that this is legal information, not legal advice. As a result, it should not be relied or acted upon because it is a hypothetical exercise and does not take into account the specifics of your drone operations. However, if you would like legal advice, please be in touch.
It appears that the 30m rule generally does apply to micro drones (unless flown as a model aircraft indoors). This is because, while micro drones are carved out of the 30m rules in the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (CASR), micro drones appear to be captured under the 30m rule in CASA 96/17 – Direction — operation of certain unmanned aircraft.
Most drone operators are familiar with the general prohibition against operating their drone within 30m of other people, unless:
(a) that person has duties essential to the control or navigation of the drone, or;
(b) the other person consents to a lesser distance which can then be reduced to 15m.
However, does this rule apply to ALL drones – of all sizes and both RPA and model aircraft? And to ‘micro’ drones? This is what we will unpack below.
Quick note on terminology
At present, a ‘micro RPA’ is defined as ‘an RPA with a gross weight of 100g or less.’ However, when RPA registration comes into play, which is currently scheduled for 30 September 2020, ‘micro RPA’ will be increased to ‘a gross weight of not more than 250g.’ As a result, the significance of what a micro drone is allowed to do will increase.
The 30m rule in the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (CASR)
The 30m rule is mentioned 3 times in the CASR as follows.
PROHIBITION 1: Section 101.238, titled ‘Meaning of standard RPA operating conditions’ includes subsection (c) which states that “the RPA is not operated within 30m of a person who is not directly associated with the operation of the RPA.”
The loophole: if you look further up the CASR, you see that section 101.238 falls under ‘Subpart 101.F—Remotely piloted aircraft’. Section 101.235 tells us that Subpart 101.F applies to very small, small, medium and large RPA. You will notice no mention of micro RPA. This indicates that Subpart 101.F does not apply to micro RPA, so neither will section 101.238. (Side-note, this section related to the standard RPA operating conditions, which do not apply to micro RPA anyway).
PROHIBITION 2: Section 101.245 titled ‘Operation near people’ states at (1) that “…a person must not operate an RPA within 30 metres of a person (the second person) who is not directly associated with the operation of the RPA.”
The loophole: same as above, if you look further up the CASR, you see that section 101.245 also comes under ‘Subpart 101.F—Remotely piloted aircraft’ and section 101.235 tells us that Subpart 101.F applies to very small, small, medium and large RPA. Again, no mention of micro RPA. This indicates that Subpart 101.F does not apply to micro RPA, so neither will section 101.245.
PROHIBITION 3: section 101.395 states at (2) that “… somebody who is operating a powered model aircraft must ensure that, while the model aircraft is in flight, or is landing or taking off, it stays at least 30 metres away from anyone not directly associated with the operation of model aircraft.”
The loophole: if you look further up the CASR, you see that above mentioned section 101.395 comes under ‘Subpart 101.G—Model aircraft’. Section 101.375 tells is that Subpart 101.G applies to the operation of model aircraft weighing 100 grams or more. As a result, the prohibition does not apply to model aircraft that weigh less than 100g. (Note: once model aircraft registration comes into play, this section 101.395 will say that this subpart applies to the operation of model aircraft weighing more than 250 g).
In conclusion, micro drones appear to be carved out of the 30m rule under the CASR.
It is important not to forget the catch-all backstop section 101.055 titled ‘Hazardous operation prohibited’ which captures ALL drones and states that “A person must not operate an unmanned aircraft in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, another person, or property.” That is, even if the 30m rule is dodged, this section is broad enough to catch any “hazardous operation“, the breadth of what this will include will initially be up to CASA to decide, and if necessary, the Courts.
The spanner: CASA 96/17 – Direction — operation of certain unmanned aircraft
This Direction was released on 17 October 2017 and at present continues to operate until it is repealed at the end of 30 September 2020. Note that 30 September 2020 is when RPA registration and pilot accreditation comes into place, and we have little doubt that this Direction will be updated to reflect these changes.
Section 8 of the Direction tells us that “a person controlling an RPA must ensure that the aircraft is not operated less than 30 m from a person unless the person has duties essential to the control or navigation of the aircraft”. This can be relaxed if you obtain an authorisation or exemption from CASA.
What about micro drones?…similarly to the exercise we conducted above, by looking further up the Direction we find out which drones are, or are not, covered by this Direction.
Section 3 of the Direction tells us that the Direction “applies to the operation of unmanned aircraft of all kinds, except operation mentioned in subregulation 101.005 (3) of CASR.”
Jumping across to subregulation 101.005(3) of the CASR to find out the operations to which the Direction does NOT apply (and hence the 30m rule does not apply), we see the following:
(a) a control‑line model aircraft (that is, a model aircraft that is constrained to fly in a circle, and is controlled in attitude and altitude, by means of inextensible wires attached to a handle held by the person operating the model); or
(b) a model aircraft indoors; or
(c) an unmanned airship indoors; or
(d) a small balloon within 100 metres of a structure and not above the top of the structure; or
(e) an unmanned tethered balloon that remains below 400 feet AGL; or
(f) a firework rocket not capable of rising more than 400 feet AGL.
You will notice that micro drones are NOT mentioned in this carve-out. As a result, it appears that the 30m rule in the Direction does apply to micro drones, unless operated as a model aircraft indoors (where weight isn’t mentioned at all).
If you made it to the end of this article, we applaud you. The law really shouldn’t be this tricky to decipher (nor require suckers like yours truly to dedicate their careers to figuring this stuff out) but hey – them’s the breaks – and we must operate within the system that regulates us (law reform aside). As mentioned above, this has been a hypothetical exercise and we won’t see how these provisions will be authoritatively interpreted until they come before the Courts. We remain open to discuss these provisions and any aspects of the regulations.
The Drone Lawyer
20 April 2020