Drone laws may stifle innovation

James Riley
Editorial Director

A senate inquiry into the use of drones in Australia risks stifling local innovation in the sector if it recommends the imposition of heavy-handed regulation, according local drone entrepreneur Francis Vierboom.

The Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee launched an inquiry into “regulatory requirements that impact on the safe use” of drones last October last year, and will be report its findings by the end of the year. The committee released preliminary recommendations earlier this month, focusing on improved safety regulations and safety training for drone users.

“As the inquiry has progressed, it has become apparent to the committee that the safety regulations regarding drone use have not kept up with a rapidly growing industry, and that immediate action should be taken to make drone use safer,” the committee reported.

Francis Vierboom: Tighter regulation of drone use could punch a hole in a booming sector

Its recommendations sent to Transport Minister Darren Chester included that all recreational drone users should undergo training and safety awareness before purchasing drones, and that CASA should be allowed to track all individual drones through registrations and to implement geo-fencing technology around airports.

The committee will also explore more stringent measures during the rest of the inquiry, including mandatory flight logging and the display of registration marks.

But while it’s crucial to ensure the industry is as safe as possible, Propeller Aero co-founder and CEO Francis Vierboom said imposing strict and unnecessary regulations on companies that may want to use drones could stifle innovation in the country.

“The people that regulate this have grown up building safety systems to keep tin cans with hundreds of people inside them in the sky. But when you’re talking about flying a 2kg plastic drone over remote worksites, you need to take a realistic approach to that,” Mr Vierboom told InnovationAus.com.

“The broad thrust of what the inquiry cares about is exactly right about it, but a heavy-handed set of regulations that won’t realistically change the safety profile of how people use drones will actually hamper the commercial applications where there are massive safety benefits for people working on hazardous worksites without benefitting safety.”

Propeller Aero isn’t a manufacturer or distributor of drones. Rather, it’s an Australian company that provides hardware and software solutions to other companies looking to adopt drones in their operations.

There are huge opportunities for local companies of all types to benefit from the use of drones, but only if the regulations allow it, Mr Vierboom said.

“We’re not really talking about delivering pizza, we’re talking about using them on dangerous worksites and in mines. Drones have really good applications to keep people out of harm’s way and not subject anyone to risk,” he said.

“The application for this stuff will grow but there does need to be a level of adoption that empowers those companies to do it themselves.”

“Depending on how much training and licensing is required for companies that will have a big impact on whether or not it actually happens.”

Imposing mandatory training and expensive licensing for drones may prevent companies from using drones, he said.

“I think the effect it would have would be to really keep drones at a bit of experimental phases, where it’s a bit stuck at the moment,” Mr Vierboom said.

“There’s been an overnight boom in drone companies that have done the licensing and gained approval, but with the deregulation of sub-2kg drones late last year there were really important new opportunities for companies more broadly to start using this technology in other applications.”

Drones have an special potential to in rural Australia in the regtech and agricultural sectors, Flying Ag Australia co-founder Meg Kummerow told the senate inquiry.

“I just wanted to get across how farmers are using the technology on farm – things like drones deployed to get crop imagery as well as for the livestock industry, whether that’s mustering, watering point checking, just to show them how farmers are using this technology,” Ms Kummerow said.

Queensland senator Barry O’Sullivan, who instigated the inquiry, has said he doesn’t want heavy-handed regulations to prevent farmers and the like adopting drone technology.

“I see an enormous future for them in agricultural applications and if I could put my view as simply as I can, I think that while ever it’s on the parameters of your property, subject only to the impact it might have on issues of workplace health and safety and issues to do with general aviation, beyond that I don’t think there should be any regulation,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

While backing the call to improve safety regulations on the sector, Mr Vierboom said many the committee’s suggestions do not address the genuine concerns and don’t take a realistic approach.

“If someone wants to fly a drone outside of the rules they’ll be able to. If you’re going to create registrations to bring people into commercial regulation then you need to make it easy for people to comply with, or they won’t,” he said.

“There is a lot that drone users can benefit from learning about flying safely, but introducing drone licensing takes it really far. It’s not realistic for drone flyers to be expected to do that, and I think it will have a significant impact on really good and safe commercial uses.”

“Lots of companies that want to use drones have a really mature approach to risk management and understanding the risks. They’re not under any illusions about what is involved in them, but the adding of another layer of aviation regulation into that could be significant.”

Australia has led the way in many aspects of drone technology, but imposing strict rules and regulations, as suggested by the senate committee, could put the country behind the pace, he said.

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