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Australia amends rules to allow commercial drone flight

New regulations introduced by the Australian government have cut red tape for small unmanned aerial vehicle operators to conduct commercial flights.

Commercial operators of "very small remotely piloted aircraft" will no longer be required to obtain a number of regulatory approvals to fly their unmanned vehicles under new regulations approved by the federal government.

Under the changes, the regulatory requirements for remotely piloted aircraft are eased, with the term "unmanned aerial vehicle" (UAV) replaced by "remotely piloted aircraft" (RPA). The explanatory statement says this is to align itself with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) terminology.

Director of Aviation Safety at the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) Mark Skidmore said the regulation changes maintain appropriate safety standards while cutting red tape.

"While safety must always come first, CASA's aim is to lighten the regulatory requirements where we can," Skidmore said. "The amended regulations recognise the different safety risks posed by different types of remotely piloted aircraft."

The changes, which take effect in late September 2016, apply to remotely piloted aircraft used in commercial operations weighing less than 2 kilograms maximum take-off weight.

Under the new rules, drone operators will need to notify CASA that they intend to fly their aircraft and adhere to a set of standard operating conditions, which include flying only during the day within a visual line of sight, below 120 metres; keeping more than 30 metres away from other people; flying more than 5.5 kilometres from controlled aerodromes; and not operating near emergency situations.

The regulation, however, makes it an offence for a person to operate very small drones for hire or reward without notifying CASA and also allows CASA to establish and maintain a database of information that relates to these notifications.

Private landholders will be allowed to carry out a range of activities on their own land without the need for approvals from CASA and without an Unmanned Aircraft Operator's Certificate if their drones weigh 25 kilograms of less -- providing that none of the parties involved receive remuneration for the flight.

For aircraft weighing 25 kilograms and over, the operator needs to hold a remote pilot licence in the category of aircraft being flown.

Autonomous flight is still prohibited under the amendments, however, until such time as suitable regulations can be developed by CASA. The government has confirmed that there is scope for autonomous flight to be approved by CASA on a case-by-case basis in the meantime.

"People intending to utilise the new very small category of commercial operations should understand this can only be done if the standard operating conditions are strictly followed and CASA is notified," Skidmore said. "Penalties can apply if these conditions are not met."

Last month, Australia Post managing director and group CEO Ahmed Fahour said he was considering trialling UAV delivery in some rural areas of the country. The postal chief said that when a driver stops at the farm gate of a property they could use a drone to deliver the mail to the door of the farmhouse, rather than complete the trip up an often long driveway, adding that it would improve service and make it more convenient for rural customers.

"I know there are some retailers right now that we're working with, and I'm hoping later this year we're going to do some trials," Fahour said. "The reality is that anybody who doesn't believe that technology is going to fundamentally change the way we do business in this country is mad."

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cleared online shopping giant Amazon to experiment with drone deliveries in April last year, stipulating that they can only be flown in daylight and operators need to maintain a visual line of sight.

Walmart then filed an application with the FAA in October to test its drones to fulfil deliveries to customers at its own outlets and customers' homes, as well as curbside pickups.

Alphabet's Google also jumped on the idea of drone delivery a little while ago, with Project Wing -- the search giant's initiative aimed at making deliveries via autonomous vehicles -- hoping to have a to-market product come 2017.