Firefighters raise safety concern about drones flying in bushfire areas…. and of course there are privacy implications.

November 10, 2014 |

The ABC reports today in Firefighting helicopters to be grounded if drones spotted in bushfire areas, authorities say about concerns about drones flying in a bushfire area causing a threat to aerial firefighters.  While the concern is specific the general threat of drones to aviation has been well-known for some time the increasing number of drones and their improved technical capacity makes the issue even more pressing.  Not that the review by CASA is moving at lightening speed.  But CASA’s role relates to civil aviation and flight regulation.  There are significant, if not greater, privacy issues which have been well-known and conspicuously ignored which is not part of CASA’s brief and not within its jurisdictional control. Nothing is being done at any level in that regard even though there is much to be done.  Proper consideration of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era would have been a reasonable start.  At minimum the Parliament’s own, bipartisan, report Eyes in the Sky should be reviewed.

Technology waits for no one.  From a policy perspective the Government, at all levels, should heed the words of Benjamin Franklin You may delay, but time will not.

The ABC report provides:

During large, out-of-control bushfires in Australia firefighters rely on water-bombing helicopters which will have to be grounded if a drone is spotted nearby, authorities say.

With recreational drone ownership exploding into the thousands over the past year, air safety regulators and the nation’s aerial firefighters fear drones are a very real threat to safety, and they warned amateur operators to stay well away.

Superintendent Anthony Ferguson from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service’s (RFS) State Air Desk said firefighting pilots nationwide were concerned.

“They’re just trying to fly safely in what are very high stress situations and you add in this other element and it becomes incredibly dangerous for them,” he said.

Even during a raging bushfire, helicopters would be grounded.

“If you take those aircraft out of there you’re losing situational awareness from above, you’re losing the capacity to be able to reach fire that firefighters won’t be able to reach from their tankers, and you’re losing a vital support mechanism,” Superintendent Ferguson said.

Unlike birds that hit choppers, a drone is solid and could do enough damage to bring an aircraft down, according to Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) spokesman Peter Gibson.

“It’s almost impossible for a fire-fighting pilot to see a drone in the air, particularly in a bushfire situation when you may have low visibility and high winds and they’re concentrating on doing their job fighting the bushfire,” he said.

“They’re doing [their job] in a very planned, organised mission and then to have a random flying object nearby just creates all sorts of unnecessary risks.”

No law prevents drones flying near bushfires

Current regulations are that drones have to be 30 metres away from people, they are not be used in built-up areas, not to exceed 400 feet in height and not be flown in controlled air space, but there is no law against flying near bushfires.

Drones must not create a hazard for other aircraft, but if the device was several hundred metres away from its operator, how would they know if a firefighting aircraft was approaching.

Superintendent Ferguson said the nation’s aerial firefighters have sent a submission to CASA calling for the law to be amended to include a three to five nautical mile exclusion zone around a bushfire.

CASA is considering that submission.

“We’ve received all those comments, we’re still looking at those,” Mr Gibson said.

“A number of changes are being considered there, they haven’t been brought in yet, but we are looking all the time to make sure the rules covering remotely piloted aircraft and recreational drones stay up to date with this growing sector of aviation.”

Drone ownership ‘exploding’ in Australia

Two years ago drones were not a problem for aerial firefighters, but now ownership of the remotely-controlled aircraft is “exploding” according to CASA and the NSW RFS.

“You see a lot of people trying to get that wonderful moment [using a video camera attached to the drone] that they can put on Facebook or on YouTube, they’re not thinking about the full-on effect of what they’re doing,” Superintendent Ferguson said.

“We’ve had one fire season where we saw four serious incursions and now this year I’m very nervous about what we’re going to face again.”

Enforcing regulations for drones was a challenge as they became more popular.

“No-one knows exactly how many recreational drones are out there but you would have to assume there are tens-of-thousands,” Mr Gibson said.

“Certainly the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has printed around 100,000 flyers to give to retailers that contain the rules so we believe many are being sold all the time.”

Industry group Australian Certified UAV Operators (ACUO) said the number of licensed users in Australia was 105 in May and that number was expected to be 200 by Christmas.

The group said certified operators who hold drone pilot licences abide by the rules, but it was recreational operators who do not have licences that were causing concern.

“Most people are just keen to get it in the air and get some pictures and have a play with it,” ACUO secretary Brad Mason said.

“There are dozens of videos on the internet of people flying their drone as high as possible and then watching it plummeting to the ground.

“That’s just stupidity as far as we’re concerned, the regulations are there, they’re quite clear.

“I don’t know if we can be any clearer than that and it’s just that people have to learn to abide by the regulations.”

A drone is very easy to operate, even children can do it. 

In the time it takes you to open the box and charge the battery – about an hour – you could learn all you need to know to be airborne.

“It’s good that it’s not so difficult to be able to fly these things anymore,” Mr Mason said.

“But on the same token because it’s so easy, it’s very attractive for people to go out and do it.”

  On Drones and Privacy the Eyes in the Sky report recommended:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, through the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), include information on Australia’s privacy laws with the safety pamphlet CASA currently distributes to vendors of remotely piloted aircraft. The pamphlet should highlight remotely piloted aircraft users’ responsibility not to monitor, record or disclose individuals’ private activities without their consent and provide links to further information on Australia’s privacy laws.

While it is difficult to prevent the misuse of new technologies, it may be possible to give people who have been the victims of that misuse easier access to justice. The current complexity of Australian privacy law is a burden to these individuals that should be addressed.

The Committee emphasises that while RPAs pose specific privacy problems, they are just one of many emerging technologies that have privacy implications. Addressing the issues RPA use raises should be part of a broader effort to update Australian privacy law to deal with the gamut of invasive technologies.

The Committee notes that the ALRC’s inquiry into serious invasions of privacy in the digital era is nearing completion. The Committee notes from its discussion paper that the ALRC may recommend the creation of a tort of serious invasion of privacy, and that it may recommend the standardisation of surveillance and harassment laws across jurisdictions. There is a clear need for reforms of this type.


The Committee recommends that the Australian Government consider introducing legislation by July 2015 which provides protection against privacy-invasive technologies (including remotely piloted aircraft), with particular emphasis on protecting against intrusions on a person’s seclusion or private affairs.

The Committee recommends that in considering the type and extent of protection to be afforded, the Government consider giving effect to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s proposal for the creation of a tort of serious invasion of privacy, or include alternate measures to achieve similar outcomes, with respect to invasive technologies including remotely piloted aircraft.

Recommendation 4

The Committee recommends that, at the late-2014 meeting of COAG’s Law, Crime and Community Safety Council , the Australian Government initiate action to simplify Australia’s privacy regime by introducing harmonised Australia – wide surveillance laws that cover the use of:

  •  listening devices
  •  optical surveillance devices
  •  data surveillance devices, and
  • tracking devices

The unified regime should contain technology neutral definitions of the kinds of surveillance devices, and should not provide fewer protections in any state or territory than presently exist.

The Committee notes that law enforcement agencies have stated that at present they have no plans to use RPAs in a surveillance capability. However it is apparent that, given the rate at which RPA technology is developing, Australia’s law enforcement agencies will soon have access to cost- effective mass surveillance technology.

Moreover, evidence to this inquiry has indicated that the Commonwealth Surveillance Devices Act is no impediment to the deployment of that capability by law enforcement agencies.

Australia’s surveillance laws were not designed with this capability in mind and, in order to protect Australian citizens’ rights and freedoms, the Committee is of the view that the use of RPAs for surveillance should be subject to a rigorous approval process.

Recommendation 5

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government consider the measures operating to regulate the use or potential use of RPAs byCommonwealth law enforcement agencies for surveillance purposes in circumstances where that use may give rise to issues regarding a person’s seclusion or private affairs. This consideration should involve both assessment of the adequacy of presently existing internal practices and procedures of relevant Commonwealth law enforcement agencies, as well as the adequacy of relevant provisions of the Surveillance Devices Act 2004 (Cth) relating but not limited to warrant provisions. Further, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government initiate action at COAG’s Law, Crime and Community Safety Council to harmonise what may be determined to be an appropriate and approved use of RPAs by law enforcement agencies across jurisdictions RPAs have introduced privacy and safety issues not conceived of a decade ago. The Committee is aware that the technology of RPAs a decade from now may exceed what we can currently imagine. Given the seriousness of both privacy and air safety and the expected surge in the use of low cost RPAs, the Committee considers it imperative that a forward plan is in place to monitor RPA use and regulation.

While the current work of CASA and the ALRC is appropriately addressing current issues, a more coordinated approach for the future is required. Further, given the diversity of users and rapid technological change, there must be better coordination in the review and development of privacy and air safety regulation relating to RPAs.

Recommendation 6

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government coordinate with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the Australian Privacy Commissioner to review the adequacy of the privacy and air safety regimes in relation to remotely piloted aircraft , highlighting any regulatory issues and future areas of action. This review should be publicly released by June 2016.

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