Remotely piloted aircraft (or drones) – they might soon be a common sight overhead, at least if the hype is correct.

Changes to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules are being made to account for the growth in recreational, commercial and public operations of drones.

It is worth bearing this in mind and thinking carefully about what you buy and where you will fly before you order that drone for Christmas.

Model aircraft were once the realm of a small group of hobbyists. The new breed of remotely piloted aircraft are typically lightweight devices with multiple rotors, loaded with GPS and gyro sensors, often controlled by a smartphone and capable of carrying a small camera to shoot video. They are finding applications beyond recreation: in scientific research, mapping, power line inspection, search and rescue, commercial filmmaking, policing, and agriculture. They can be bought from hobby, electronics and toy stores for as little as $100, with many camera-carrying examples available for under $1000. They are likely to make it onto many Christmas lists this year.

Proposed changes to Civil Aviation rules, currently out for public consultation, will prohibit flying over parks or houses unless permission is obtained from all affected people, and flying within 4km of an aerodrome or heliport.

To manage the risk of uncertified drones, the CAA will place a duty on the pilot to have a basic understanding of the rules governing where and how they can fly (or be directly supervised by someone who has this knowledge).

So what is the basic understanding you need to fly an uncertified remotely piloted aircraft?

Must not create a hazard to other aircraft, persons or property.
The pilot must take all steps practicable to minimise the hazard to persons and property. The pilot must avoid flying over persons or property without first obtaining consent. In principal, this would mean asking everyone at the beach or park before flying your drone overhead.

Must not fly within 4km of an aerodrome.
There are 187 aerodromes in NZ, including commercial airports, private aerodromes and hospital heliports. Placing a 4km zone around these creates a significant no-fly zone. For example, Wellington airport plus the hospital and Queen’s Wharf heliports makes most of Wellington a no-fly zone. An exception allows flight within the 4km zone if flying close to a structure that shields the drone from the aerodrome.

Must remain in visual line of sight.
The minimum requirement is to maintain visual line of sight of the whole area in which flight is intended, without the use of binoculars or other instruments. It is acceptable to use an observer to maintain direct eye contact if they are in direct communication with the pilot.

Must not fly higher than 120m above ground level.
Must weigh under 15kg.

In their proposal, the CAA note that any drone that is wholly or partially autonomous is deemed to be high risk and will require certification. This raises questions about the status of readily-available drones that use GPS to map out a pre-arranged flight path, or to return to base autonomously when out of range. Newer technology, such as this drone by Hexoplus designed for filming action sports, pairs to a mobile phone and tracks the phone autonomously. Will this require certification for use in New Zealand?

The revised CAA regulations are up for public consultation until 30 January 2015. The final proposed rule will then be submitted to government.

Paul Smith