The Queensland government has committed to developing “drone zones” for commercial tests of aerial drone technology.
In addition to designating zones for testing aerial drones, the government will create areas for testing the land-based and marine capabilities of drones.
(Last year Brisbane City Council designated parts of 10 parks as zones for recreational flying of drones as part of a trial.)
The drone zone proposal forms part of what the Queensland government claims is an Australian first: A whole-of-government drones strategy.
The aim of the strategy is to help ensure that Queensland “is best positioned to make the most of drone technology and application, and has the agility to address new opportunities and challenges as they emerge,” states the document, which was released publicly late last month. The state has an opportunity to become the “world-leader in drones,” it says.
The state government in August began consulting on the strategy.
The government says it has already backed a number of initiatives that have helped position Queensland as a regional leader in drone technology.
In May, the first Defence Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Trusted Autonomous Systems was officially launched in Brisbane. The $50 million CRC has backing from BAE Systems Australia, DefendTex, RMIT University, and Defence Science and Technology.
Through its ‘Advance Queensland’ initiative, the state government has funded drone projects — including putting $1 million towards a Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) research project by Boeing subsidiary Insitu Pacific, Shell’s QGC natural gas project, and Telstra that focuses on remote infrastructure monitoring.
Future initiatives outlined in the strategy include helping fund the World of Drones Congress in Brisbane in 2018 and 2019, putting $1 million over five years towards drone-related scholarships, and developing specific “Queensland Aerospace and Defence Industry 10‑year Roadmaps and Action Plans”. Drones will be incorporated into the Department of Education’s STEM programs.
The government will also put $3 million towards an independent body that can develop standards for the assessment and certification of autonomous and robotic technology.
The Queensland Law Reform Commission will examine whether the state’s existing legislation adequately protects privacy in the context of “modern and emerging technologies” and an education campaign focused on privacy and targeting recreational drone users will be developed.
The government will publish an internal policy for agencies regarding the use of drones, as well as develop standards for drone data and imagery.
The government said it would conduct regular reviews of the drone strategy, with the first to be carried out next year.
In May 2016, Goldman Sachs Research forecast that over the next five years drones would represent a US$100 billion market opportunity. Although US$70 billion was predicted to relate to military use of drones, the consumer market represented a US$17 billion opportunity and commercial and civil use of drones US$13 billion. Within the third category, construction and agriculture will be responsible for the lion’s share.
According to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, as of July 2017 there were some 5870 Australian holders of remotely piloted aircraft licences (RePLs) as well as more than 1100 remotely piloted aircraft operator’s certificate (ReOC) holders.
CASA last year estimated that there were at least 50,000 drones being operated around Australia — with the vast majority being piloted by recreational users who are required to hold neither an RePL nor an ReOC.
At a federal level, there is an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the safety regulations governing drone use. The report of that inquiry is not expected to be released until the end of July; however in May last year participating MPs wrote a letter to the infrastructure minister calling for urgent action on drone safety.
The committee called for compulsory safety awareness and training for recreational drone users; for CASA to be empowered to register all individual drones regardless of their size or intended use; and for the introduction for geofencing technology and/or drone shields to protect controlled airspace and airports.
In May, CASA released its review of aviation safety regulation of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS). It included seven recommendations, including the mandatory registration of aerial drones that weigh more than 250 grams, support for geo-fencing technology to prevent drones straying into restricted airspace and the development of a roadmap for RPAS.
The safety regulator’s review also recommended that CASA develop an online course for recreational drone users. In 2017, according to Australian Transport Safety Bureau figures reported by CASA, there were 151 report “near encounters” between aerial drones and manned airport, with 72 taking place within 20 nautical miles of Sydney Airport. That compares to 127 near encounters over the five years from 2012 to 2016.