'All but powerless': Government concedes it can't stop delivery drones

The ACT government admits it has "very limited" powers to regulate household delivery drone services, including the level of noise emitted during flights, a Legislative Assembly inquiry has heard.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has also acknowledged that no single federal agency is responsible for policing drone noise, as more gaps in the regulation of the divisive innovation start to emerge.

Attorney-General  Gordan Ramsay said the ACT government had "very limited" powers to regulate drone delivery services  Photo: Jamila Toderas

Attorney-General Gordan Ramsay said the ACT government had "very limited" powers to regulate drone delivery services Photo: Jamila Toderas

On Wednesday, ACT government ministers and bureaucrats, as well as senior aviation authority officials, fronted the Assembly's delivery drone inquiry, which is examining's the technology's presence in the national capital as tech company Wing prepares to launch into Canberra's northern suburbs.

Opponents of Wing's Bonython trial have repeatedly spoken of a lack of clarity over the regulation of the operation, describing how their grievances about noise, privacy and disturbances to animals were being bounced between departments and largely left unresolved.

Liberal Jeremy Hanson, who is chairing the inquiry, questioned Attorney-General Gordan Ramsay and Planning Minister Mick Gentleman over what the government could do to mitigate the disturbances from drones.

In response, Mr Ramsay said the territory government had little power to regulate or restrict drone delivery services.

"The simple reality is that we have very limited space in which the ACT government has the capacity to move into the regulation of drones," Mr Ramsay told the inquiry. "The Australian Government has exclusive power to regulate safety in terms of safety and in terms drone noise."

The ACT's deputy chief solicitor, Kristin Leece, said it was "not inconceivable" that territory-based drone laws could be introduced, but stressed they would likely only relate to individuals who committed an offence using the aircraft.

The inquiry heard the government has been in contact with Google-backed Wing since June 2017, but has had limited involvement in the approval of its trials or regulation of the delivery service, which is the responsibility of the aviation safety authority.

The government did, however, lease a territory-owned block of land in Greenway to Wing for its Bonython trial. Geoffrey Rutledge, a deputy director-general at the territory's environment, planning and sustainable development directorate, told the hearing that it "leveraged" its ownership of the site to impose conditions on Wing's trial, including the hours of operation.

Wing plans to establish a permanent base at a private site in Mitchell, meaning the government won't have the opportunity to impose similar conditions.

Labor backbencher Suzanne Orr, who sits on the committee conducting the inquiry, asked Mr Rutledge if the planning authority could impose restrictions on Wing's operation as a condition of the approval of its application to develop its Mitchell base.

Mr Rutledge said "it was possible", but likely outside the remit of the planning body.

"We zone where coffee shops should be and we approve the coffee shop, but we then don't go that extra step of regulating that business," Mr Rutledge said. "I suppose it's one angle, but I don't think it [imposing restrictions] would be a successful one."

The territory's apparently limited powers to regulate delivery drones, including noise, means Canberrans will have to lean on federal agencies to monitor Wing's expansion.

But in their evidence to the inquiry, the aviation authority's representatives said it was unclear which federal bodies had direct oversight of certain aspects of commercial drone services.

The authority is responsible for approving and monitoring drone delivery operations, taking into account issues around the safety of aircraft, as well as people and property. Air Services Australia manages aircraft noise in Australia, although it has no power to establish or enforce noise limits.

In its submission to the assembly's inquiry, Air Services Australia said there were no federal noise regulations for drones. The submission noted that there was "common misconception" among complainants to Wing's Bonython trial about the agency's power to regulate or block the operation.

Speaking at Wednesday's hearing, the aviation authority's legal and regulatory affairs executive manager, Jonathan Aleck, said the jurisdictional boundaries between the relevant federal agencies, in relation to drones, were blurred.

"Although there are many agencies, federal and state that have remits in those areas, I won't say it is a question that no one does [have authority], but I think its a question of where the lines begin and where the lines end," Mr Aleck said.

The authority's drone expert, Luke Gurmley, confirmed there had been two minor incidents during the Bonython trial in which Wing's drones made "unplanned" landings while on a delivery flight. But he said the authority had no concerns about the safety of the aircraft.