Getting high without breaking the law.
Did you know the rules and regulations around using drones in Australia are changing as of today? Yeah, neither did I until I read it earlier this week and thought: ‘There were rules to begin with? Don’t you just tape your mum’s video camera to your brother’s remote control helicopter and start capturing the action from the heavens?’ Turns out you don’t. It turns out there’s actually quite a lot of legislation in place to regulate the use of drones in Australia and, believe it or not, most of it’s intended to keep us safe.
With nearly ten years in the game and an established business specialising in high-end drone footage, Greg Weatherall is a pretty good man to talk to on the subject. His company Platinum Drones provided the coverage at this year’s Quikky Pro on the Gold Coast and with a long history of gaining clearances from CASA (the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, the government body in charge of regulating drone use), he knows as well as most the rules in place for operators in Australia. As a result, he also knows the ways in which most people run afoul of them.
And when it comes to filming surfing, a lot of it comes down to the operator not knowing what’s allowed in certain locations.
‘You’re not supposed to fly them in any controlled airspace,’ advises Greg. ‘Now, a controlled airspace is most of Sydney, Melbourne, and the Gold Coast between Mermaid Beach all the way down to just before Cabarita, so any of those places you’re not supposed to fly unless certain circumstances are met.’
Does that mean you can’t just rock on down to Snapper on a pumping day and start capturing the action from above? Unfortunately, according to Greg, you can’t.
‘I completely understand why people want to,’ he says. ‘I want to go down there and fly everyday, it’s beautiful and the waves pump. But if you’ve ever sat out the end here and seen how low the Westpac Rescue Helicopter gets sometimes, then that’s why the safety issue of not flying them at places like that is really important.’
To illustrate just how strict the rules are at a heavily trafficked flight area such as Snapper, Greg explains the process he had to go through to get approval to film the 2016 Quiksilver Pro.
‘It took us two years of talking with CASA before they actually let us have an approval. I had to get permission from the council, permission from the life guards, we had to put the Gold Coast City Council on our insurance policy to indemnify them along with the WSL. At the time of clearance that was the first time CASA had given clearance for operation at Coolangatta.’
And while the idea of making a few bucks out of shooting surfing might seem like an appealing lifestyle choice, Greg points out that restrictions on filming at some of the better spots isn’t the only obstacle you might run into.
‘Apart from the world surfing tour, and the odd job from Surfing Australia, I don’t know that anyone’s actually paying for drone work. There’s a lot more involved than just walking in, buying a drone and saying I’m going to start a drone company. Our spend each year on batteries and screens and broken parts and all the rest is tens of thousands of dollars, just to keep them in the air, so it’s certainly not a cheap sport to get involved in.’
But as a genuine lover of the technology, Greg doesn’t want to discourage any would-be enthusiasts from getting out there and enjoying themselves. Sure, there are rules in place, but he also points to the fact that Australia is now one of the most relaxed countries in the world in regards to drone usage.
‘Look, if you’re going down to your local beachie and it’s more than 5.5km away from the nearest airport and your filming your mates, as long as you’re staying safely away from people, and the council and the cops don’t have a problem with you, then I don’t think anyone’s going to really have a go at you. I don’t think anyone really cares too much what anyone is doing as long as they’re not hurting others or putting people at risk by flying over or too close to surfers and beachgoers. And if you are getting paid for it, then make sure you’ve registered with CASA, have council approval, are following the rules and have insurance, because you are liable if anything bad happens.’
So what is Greg’s advice for anyone thinking of buying a drone and taking up the hobby?
‘Nothing beats going out to a big park or a big open area away from trees and playing with it and testing it,’ he offers. ‘Don’t get it and think you should be down on the beach filming your mates surfing in a couple of days. That’s when something will go wrong. As far as I’m concerned, nothing beats stick time and experience.’
For the full rundown on the new rules, click here.