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Eyes in the sky: Drones and environmental monitoring

01 February, 2019

Thinking of using a drone for environmental monitoring in Queensland? Here's all you need to know.

Drones (or ‘remotely piloted aircraft’) are becoming an increasingly popular tool for many purposes and can provide spectacular aerial footage.

One important use they’re being put towards is environmental monitoring that allows community members to observe and record activities such as mining operations, vegetation clearing and urban development if they are concerned about lawfulness of the activities. 

But what does the law say about using drones for this purpose?

Safety first!  Getting your drone airborne

The Federal Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) sets safety rules for drone use, and it has different rules depending on the size of the drone and why it's being used. CASA has plenty of helpful information on its website and a contact help line, so be sure to review that and make any necessary enquiries.

You may need a CASA licence, depending on the size of your drone and the reason you’re using it – there are different rules for recreational and commercial use.  Even if CASA was to view such a monitoring purpose as ‘commercial’, you may not need a licence for a drone between 100g and 2kg if you follow certain conditions.

These include notifying CASA before you fly, not flying above 120m, keeping the drone at least 30m away from other people, and being able to see the drone with your own eyes at all times. CASA has some more useful information specific to drones of this size.

Some areas are out of bounds

CASA has also released the ‘Can I fly there?’ app illustrating some of the areas where you’re not allowed to fly, and/or where certain restrictions may apply, such as near airports and helipads. However, be aware that the app is not comprehensive; various state land and local government restrictions might also apply, so always check with authorities for any specific requirements.  For example, some councils require a permit for launching or landing a drone on their property.

I spy, with my little…..drone?  Think about how and when you fly and film

You should also keep in mind matters such as privacy, trespass and nuisance. The law is still developing in these areas with respect to drones.

Normal rules with respect to trespass apply to the launching, landing and retrieving a drone from land.  

Property owners have limited rights to some of the airspace above their land, and also the right to use and enjoy their property free from unreasonable interference.  But this doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t fly a drone overhead.  

Excessive noise, flying too low or startling livestock are actions that could potentially cause an interference. Also, it can be a crime to harass or stalk someone, which might arise from a lengthy and/or repetitious flyover of land where someone is present.

Further, it can be illegal to record someone engaged in a ‘private act’ (such as showering, toileting, nudity, sexual intimacy) in a private place without their consent, even if incidentally.

So, if people are or could be around, some factors to consider might be the height you are flying at, the way in which you are flying, the time of day/night and what exactly you’re getting footage of.  

Publishing footage – keep it truthful! 

You might want to bring attention to the activity you’ve filmed by publishing it.

If you do, carefully consider the context and any messaging that accompanies the publishing.  There’s a chance you could open yourself up to defamation action from individuals or small organisations if any allegations are untrue and carry defamatory remarks.  See our defamation factsheet for more information.

Further questions? Seek legal advice

Just remember this is a general information guide only, and not legal advice.  Also, the law can be different if you’re wanting to fly in another state.  If you’ve got any concerns, questions or doubts about drone use and filming, then be sure to contact EDO Qld or a private lawyer for advice.

Environmental Defenders Office Queensland (EDO Qld) gives a strong legal voice to the environment when needed most.

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