Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly referred to as “drones”, are becoming more readily available and affordable.  The vast majority of privately owned UAVs are used by hobbyists for taking aerial photographs and videos, or are flown just for fun.  Multi-rotor UAVs have also found many applications from photographing real estate to scientific research and monitoring of agriculture.

Unfortunately, there are increasing numbers of reports from around the world of misuse of multi-rotors.  In some cases, drones have been flown close to airliners, putting at risk passengers and aircraft.  Privacy issues have also arisen, with property owners raising concerns that aerial cameras have been used in peeping Tom activities.

In most countries, aviation regulations were written long before the advent of UAVs, and regulatory bodies are struggling to catch up with the new technology.  UAVs have therefore been regarded as model aircraft and required to comply with the appropriate regulations - in the case of New Zealand, these are found in the Civil Aviation Authority Rules under Part 101 sub-part E.  However, commercial operation of UAVs is not covered by such regulations.

The New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority has written amendments to Part 101, with changes to sub-part E coming into force on 1st August 2015.  The most significant changes are the requirement (i) not to fly in airspace above persons who have not given consent for the aircraft to operate in that airspace; and (ii) above property unless prior consent has been obtained from any persons occupying that property or the property owner.  These aspects of the amendments appear to be more about privacy issues than about safety of other airspace users.  (In an interesting “odd spot” moment, a multi rotor operator flew his aircraft over the Palmerston North Square to photograph the ANZAC Day celebrations for the City Council.  Even under the old Part 101.E this would probably have been contrary to the regulations.  A complaint led to a visit by CAA inspectors for a meaningful discussion).

The aircraft must also be operated within visual line of sight of the operator or observer.  This last requirement, though present in the original Part 101.E, restricts the use of UAVs with autopilots offering programmable waypoints.  Many multi rotor and fixed wing UAVs are equipped with such autopilots, which also provide emergency landing or return-to-base procedures in case of loss of control signal.  They are ideally suited to surveying larger areas, such as on farms.

Not surprisingly, these changes have upset a number of hobbyists, who, up to now, have flown small model aircraft in parks and reserves.  Typically, these models weigh only a few hundred grams and are powered by small electric motors.  Larger aircraft are normally flown at designated club flying sites.  However, no minimum gross mass is specified for any type of model aircraft, so strictly, even the tiniest balsa chuck glider is caught in this catch-all rule.  The requirement to obtain permission from the property occupier probably means that no model aircraft can be flown in parks or reserves without the express permission of the local council.  This has already caused concern and confusion - in several reported instances, the local body has said that they have no policy on flying model aircraft and “don’t know how to grant permission”.  This suggests that CAA did not consult with local authorities before writing the Rules.

Consider the following scenario:  an enthusiast is driving close to a river after heavy rain.  He or she comes to a river bridge where floating objects are crashing into the bridge piles.  The multi-rotor is in the back of the car and this scene will make exciting footage.  However, permission must be obtained to fly.  Who is the responsible authority for the area?  Can permission be obtained with a phone call to the local council or NZTA?  Almost certainly not.  So the enthusiast will either miss the photo opportunity, or will break the law by flying without permission.

This raises another issue.  NZCAA doesn’t have the manpower to police the new regulations, while local authorities probably have neither the manpower or willingness to police them.

It is, of course, possible to get around some of these difficulties by obtaining an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate.  However, this is not a simple task and will have significant cost; application for the certificate will require payment of two hours at the standard hourly rate of $284 with suitable adjustment upon issue of the certificate.  The exposition required as part of the documentation to be supplied is appropriate for a commercial aviation operation, but will be totally beyond the means of a model aircraft enthusiast.

Of course, sometimes common sense prevails.  This author requested clearance from the local council to continue flying small radio controlled aircraft in the local Domain.  The request was granted within 24 hours, with only minor restrictions.