Australia’s drone sector is flourishing, but many technological and regulatory challenges remain.
The Australian Association for Uncrewed Systems (AAUS) is an industry association formed in 2009 to represent the uncrewed systems (or drone) sector in Australia. Its representation extends to uncrewed vehicles across the air, ground and maritime domains and the emerging advanced air mobility (AAM) sector.
We spoke with the CEO of the AAUS, Greg Tyrrell, to get the state of play of the sector and the opportunities and challenges ahead.
Drones are big business these days. Is the AAUS’ membership burgeoning?
When we started, the Australian drone industry was small and mainly invested in drone technologies for defence applications. Today we have over 3,000 members who come from all parts of the drone ecosystem, including operators, manufacturers, academia, government and end users. Broadly, our role is to further the advancement of uncrewed systems in Australia, and we primarily do this via advocacy efforts. We also provide value to our membership by holding conferences and networking events to provide information and encourage collaboration.
Is the sector becoming more complicated from an operational or regulatory standpoint?
The use of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) has risen dramatically in recent years primarily due to the advancement, simplification and affordability of the technology over this time. From an operational perspective RPAS are becoming highly automated and easier to use, which is encouraging people with non-aviation backgrounds to adopt the technology. For many applications, RPAS are also becoming more commercially viable. As a result, the take-up has been significant in recent years.
The changing demographic towards operators without traditional aviation backgrounds has created some issues for the regulator, but they are adapting quickly to enable low-risk RPAS operations. CASA has created an ‘Excluded Category’ that enables the commercial use of drones for low-risk operations with minimal red tape overhead.
What were the main results from your recent membership survey?
The survey focused on profiling the RPAS industry, identifying risks and recognising opportunities for industry growth.
Regarding the industry profile, we are seeing a trend towards organisations employing drone technologies and operating in the Excluded Category. The most common uses are currently as a tool for infrastructure inspection, surveying, construction and land management. Looking forward two to three years, the industry expects to see more drone operations in emergency services, defence, land management, mining and agricultural applications.
Regulatory risk is a significant concern for the emerging drone industry, especially for those wishing to undertake higher risk operations (including operations near populous areas, near aerodromes and at ranges ‘beyond visual line of sight’, BVLOS). Industry wishing to perform these types of operations are reporting long processing times for CASA approvals and uncertainty over future regulatory outcomes.
AAUS’ advocacy work has focussed on these issues and we have discussed the data along with potential solutions with CASA and Government. We have been advocating for a regulatory development roadmap for some time, and also the need for greater CASA resources. In recent times, AAUS and its members have rolled up our sleeves and actively participated in technical working groups to assist the industry/CASA co-develop a RPAS and AAM regulatory roadmap.
What are your members telling you they need or want from regulators?
AAUS members are seeking to perform more complex RPAS and AAM operations and seeking clearer and efficient approval processes from CASA. They want to be able to operate larger air vehicles that in some cases will require certification. They also want to improve capability by operating at greater ranges — including BVLOS from the remote pilot and with improved efficiency operating many air vehicles by one remote pilot. The increasing level of autonomy inherent with modern RPAS systems together with regulatory development will greatly assist in achieving these outcomes.
Does the wide range of use cases sometimes cause conflict or increase complexity when it comes to regulations and operations?
When looking at RPAS usage, consideration of safety risk is the parameter that tends to drive regulatory complexity. Safety risk consists of ‘air risk’ (risk of collision with other aviation) and ‘ground risk’ (risk of collision with people and property on the ground). Drone applications that occur in higher density airspace and/or over higher-density population areas are the ones that are of greatest air and ground risk and require the greatest regulatory oversight. Characteristics of the drone (size, weight, flight speed and equipage) and the remote operator (licensing and experience level) also contribute to the safety risk.
RPAS use in remote and regional areas (mining, agricultural uses) is typically lower risk and is simpler to regulate. RPAS uses that involve delivery in urban areas are typically higher risk and this drives greater complexity in the regulations. It is also worth noting that when considering RPAS or AAM operations in urban areas, regulation of noise and privacy aspects need to be considered.
What is the state of play with the use of RPAS near sensitive sites, eg. airports?
The use of RPAS around airports comes with higher air risk and historically this means a more onerous approval process that involves both CASA and Airservices Australia. Depending on your organisation’s level of certification and your personnel’s licensing, different access to the airspace around airports apply. Certified operators are permitted to apply for approval to operate within 5.5 km of a controlled airport whereas recreational and Excluded Category operators are not permitted to fly. (The rules around non-controlled aerodromes are less restrictive).
CASA and Airservices Australia are currently trialling an automated digital airspace authorisation service near Adelaide, Canberra and Perth Airports. This applies to certified organisations operating drones less than 25 kg in mass. The removal of red tape for these approvals has been very much appreciated by industry,
Which overseas developments is the AAUS is keeping its eyes on?
Many of the RPAS and AAM policy and regulatory developments described above are also being addressed internationally. Australian governments and agencies have eyes on these international efforts with the aim of learning from them and remaining harmonised. In some areas, we are behind international efforts and will probably closely follow. In other areas, we are at the leading edge.
With low-density airspace and population, Australia offers great opportunity for the emerging RPAS and AAM sectors to significantly impact many applications particularly in regional areas. While AAUS follows international developments, it advocates for Australia to lead the way in developing policy and regulation that make sense for Australia in grabbing these opportunities.
What sort of technological developments will change or challenge the sector?
I think that upcoming technological developments will enable industry by improving safety and cost effectiveness of using RPAS. Two examples are the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and detect and avoid (DAA) systems.
DAA is the ability for the RPAS to detect and avoid other aircraft. The DAA system could be based on the drone or be achieved by connected systems that have situational awareness of all aviation in the airspace. This capability will lessen air risk, particularly for BVLOS RPAS operations, and will dramatically improve range capability of the systems and reduce approval complexity.
We largely use drone systems to gather data to assist with an application. Integration of AI agents in RPAS will have a significant impact on the way data are interpreted and ultimately its value in driving efficient outcomes. In a country where labour resources are limited, automation and AI has the potential to revolutionise the way we do things, particularly in regional areas.
Are there any other challenges coming up that RPAS users need to know about?
There are many policy and regulatory challenges ahead as RPAS users push for greater scope (and higher risk) in future uses.
At a policy level, the federal government is on the front foot and working the challenges with industry to enable the emerging RPAS and AAM sectors. (Check out the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications’ National Emerging Aviation Technologies (NEAT) policy development work).
At a regulatory level, CASA continues to develop and evolve safety regulation for RPAS and AAM and is consulting on the regulatory roadmap. The roadmap will give end users a good feel for what is coming up from a regulatory perspective.
In addition, CASA and Airservices Australia are developing future airspace designs that will assist with the integration of RPAS and AAM into our airspace.
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