Canberra is being opened up to more drones under a trial currently under way.
A new system to give permits to commercial drone operators working, say, as photographers and videographers for real estate agents or inspectors of construction sites, grants them virtually instant permission to fly with no fee.
Under the old system, they would have to wait for three weeks for permission for each flight. There was also a prohibitive fee of $800. The combination of fee plus wait-time ruled out virtually all drone flights by smaller commercial operators. The new system gives them easy access at no cost.
Wing, which does a delivery service in the north of Canberra, already has a different sort of licence because its drones are on automatic-pilot, operating beyond the sight of the operator. Swoop Aero is also allowed to use drones in Canberra to deliver medical supplies.
The new service is for commercial drones operated by a person who can see the drone. Hobby drones are not affected.
The trial is being run by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and is about to come to an end, but the system is widely expected to become permanent.
Under CASA rules, there are strict regulations for flying drone within 5.5 kilometres (three nautical miles) of Canberra Airport.
The change in the system opens up the airspace within the safety zone which includes the bulk of Lake Burley Griffin east of the Commonwealth Avenue bridge as well as Kingston, Griffith, Narrabundah, Reid, Braddon and Campbell. Queanbeyan also comes within the zone where commercial drone permission will be cheaper and easier.
"The automated process reduces approval times from weeks to minutes, allowing commercial operators to secure more business, faster and at a reduced cost," CASA said in its blog.
Under the new regime, drone operators open an app and see a map with permitted fly zones. There are "cells" of clear airspace, and these can be booked immediately on the app. Each "cell" is at a different height - the nearer the drone operator wants to fly to the airport's runway, the lower the permitted ceiling is.
It is a "massive" improvement for businesses using drones, according to David Cole who is behind the FlyFreely app. "It will enable them to be more efficient," he said.
In the first six months of the trial, there were 41 applications to fly within the Canberra Airport safety zone, according to CASA. It has already approved nine apps which grant permission to fly.
Canberra-based videographer Adam Grant said on a CASA video that the new system was a "game-changer" for his industry: "I would have to spend half a day or maybe a day pulling together my application and then we'd have to wait about three weeks and spend $800 to apply for that."
Drones are forbidden outright in some areas, like Parliament Hill and near military establishments.
But they are allowed in suburban Canberra. CASA advises: "Respect personal privacy. Don't record or photograph people without their consent", but under the federal Privacy Act, there is no obvious penalty for filming someone or their property from a drone without consent.
Government-owned Airservices Australia is developing technology to cope with the expected explosion in the use of drones.
Four years ago, the company which owns Wing published a report. Under one scenario, the economists who wrote it envisaged 11,000 flights a day in the ACT by 2030.
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