Airservices Australia could ease drone restrictions in major cities

Drone “green zones” allowing pilots to fly unmanned aircraft without explicit regulator approval could be developed to accommodate the growing practice, according to Airservices Australia’s chief air traffic controller.

Paddy Goodall told a remote piloted aircraft systems conference in Canberra this week the idea was one of many the national body was considering to adapt to the rising popularity of drones.

Airservices Australia is considering easing permission requests for drone flights near major airports.
Airservices Australia is considering easing permission requests for drone flights near major airports. Photo: Paul Rovere
Under the present system, drone operators require approval from Airservices Australia before flying an unmanned aircraft higher than 400 feet (122 metres) within 3 nautical miles (5.5 kilometres) of airports.

That means the restrictions around Sydney and Bankstown airports cover most of the city’s eastern suburbs, inner west, Botany Bay and as far north as Central station.

In Canberra, the radius extends across the eastern suburbs, most of Civic and about two-thirds of Queanbeyan.

Changes to protocols could lead to the adoption of three types of zone for drones near airports: red, where use would be banned or heavily restricted; amber, requiring prior approval of all flight plans; and green, where users would need to only inform authorities about planned flights, rather than request permission.


Mr Goodall said the red and amber zones were technically already in effect, but Airservices was investigating areas within controlled airspace where green zones could be safely implemented.

“Our Operational Data Analysis team are in the early stages of work with the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation on how we can use aircraft tracking data and heat maps to identify areas close to major airports where RPAS operations may not need specific authorisation,” he said.

“If we can kick some goals on this, we may be able to enhance and streamline our internal processes to ultimately support an environment where the RPAS operator can notify and approach [air traffic control] directly about specific operations, much in the same way that a pilot of a regular aircraft can.”

Even if the green zones are adopted, drone operators would still need to adhere to other Civil Aviation Safety Authority rules.

Airservices Australia will publish an updated Concept of Operations in the coming months outlining its position on remotely piloted aircraft.

Mr Goodall said the challenges the aviation sector faced with governing drones was similar to road transport problems with Uber.

“When regulations don’t evolve so that we can benefit from what this new thing is offering, those offering it sometimes just carry on in wilful non-compliance and the end user and general public become conditioned to tolerate it,” he said.

“So as an ANSP (air navigation service provider) – we get it. We get it that we are at a moment in time where the expectation is shifting from one of restricting unmanned operations to one of what we can do to facilitate unmanned operations.”

Drone regulation remains controversial in Australia; last month, a Western Australian council considered introducing no-fly zones over parks, beaches and backyards.

Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim has spoken previously about the insufficiency of existing laws to cope with privacy issues that drones could raise.

“Our community research, that we undertake every three to four years, consistently shows that the community remains concerned about what is happening with their personal information,” he told a parliamentary committee in 2014.

“With such a new technology, the question comes down to how its use is going to be regulated.”