​CASA to work with DJI on suitability of drone 'bubble' technology in Australia

Australia's civil aviation authority has been asked by a Senate committee to involve DJI in talks regarding geofencing consumer drone devices.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has been instructed by a Senate committee to contact Chinese drone giant DJI to ascertain whether its Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) technology is suitable in an Australian climate.

Geofencing essentially creates a virtual geographic boundary around an area using GPS or RFID technology. The software triggers a response when a mobile device enters or leaves the area, and prevents users of drones, as one example, from entering an area they are prohibited.

Addressing the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee on Tuesday, CEO and Director of Aviation Safety at CASA Shane Carmody said that geofencing -- or creating a bubble around -- a drone is something the regulatory body is keen to explore.

"If limiting a bubble around a drone is technically feasible and does mature to become that way, it is certainly a way that you could -- one of the methods you could use -- to control drones and manage some elements of the risk," Carmody told the committee, although he isn't sure the technology is as mature as advertised by the likes of DJI.

He said that while the technology sounds both logical and sensible, the jury is out as to whether it is at the level that would allow CASA to mandate its use on Australian drone users.

"They're a big marketer of drones and they're trying to stay the biggest -- or get bigger," he said, highlighting the commercial mindset DJI has with regards to its GEO technology.

"We will certainly consider it."

Although committee member David Fawcett instructed CASA to make contact with DJI regarding the suitability of the company's technology, Luke Gumley, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems manager at CASA, explained his organisation was already planning discussions with DJI in regards to bringing its GEO technology to Australia.

DJI's GEO technology limits flights in locations that raise safety or security concerns and does not allow the feature to be unlocked when drones are flown within sensitive national-security locations.

GEO is currently available in the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United States, Mexico, and 13 countries within Europe.

The Senate committee is charged with discussing the regulatory requirements that impact on the safe use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and associated systems in Australia.

Facing the committee's probe earlier on Tuesday, Greg Hood, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said his organisation is "highly in favour" of having the name, telephone number, and address of the owner forcibly required on consumer-used drones.

"Should we have mid-air collisions, we know who the owner is," he said.

Hood noted there are 1,050 registered drone operators in Australia; however, committee member and Liberal National Party Senator Barry O'Sullivan likened drone ownership to firearms, and said the number provided was likely way off the actual total.

60 year-old O'Sullivan, who referred to a drone as a piece of tin throughout Tuesday's proceedings, would prefer a model that sees RPA operators subject to similar rigmarole that an aircraft pilot is.

"You're operating a piece of tin up there. Why shouldn't we say, until you meet all the standards of an operator of the tin in the air -- that is a pilot -- I'm not inclined to give people these toys because they're not toys," he said.

"Make them have medical tests, make them be trained, make their competency be regularly tested, make sure they understand meteorology, make sure they understand aviation and air traffic controls.

"All the things we force a young pilot ... who want to fly the other piece of tin."

According to O'Sullivan, an operator of an RPA has less control over the device than a pilot of an aircraft does because they can't turn their neck to see what's around their device.

Fawcett said there is a risk involved in allowing those that aren't trained in aviation techniques to be legally allowed to put their consumer device in the way of a fixed-winged aircraft.

He is concerned the exposure to other aviation users could be harmful, especially when a pilot is trained to avoid collision.

As of September 2016, commercial operators of "very small remotely piloted aircraft" are no longer required to obtain a number of regulatory approvals to fly their UAVs under regulations approved by the Australian government the April prior.

Under the changes, the government also gave the directive to drop the terms "drone" and "UAV" and replace them with RPA to align itself with International Civil Aviation Organization terminology.

The changes apply to RPA used in commercial operations weighing less than 2 kilograms maximum take-off weight. Under the rules, drone operators 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.

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