Federal authorities will review its aircraft noise regulations in relation to drones in the face of the recent Legislative Assembly committee inquiry and pressure from the public, including claims they have been flying illegally in the ACT.
Google subsidiary Wing has been operating from its Mitchell base in what it described as a world first since April, after concluding a trial in Bonython that sparked speeches in Parliament, protests, petitions and the inquiry, with complaints focused on noise and invasion of privacy.
The Bonython Against Drones Action Group campaigned against Wing’s operations in the south and passed the mantle to the NoDroneZone group formed to combat the company’s move to Canberra’s north.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority had granted approval for Wing’s new northside delivery service to Gungahlin suburbs, followed by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development, which says it assessed the operation under the Air Navigation (Aircraft Noise) Regulations 2018. Wing was able to fly, with conditions, until 31 May, now extended to 31 July.
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CASA also approved the Bonython trial but has always maintained correctly that noise was not part of its responsibilities. That fell to the department, which had argued that drones were exempt from noise regulations because they were not aircraft.
But former Australian aviation regulator Ian McIntyre challenged this notion, arguing that drones were in fact defined as aircraft in Australia and that Wing had been flying illegally.
Now the department has accepted that it was wrong and announced on its website a review to determine the appropriate scope and breadth of future noise regulation for drones.
But it did not believe that it was in the public interest to prosecute Wing or other operators that may have breached the rules, due to the lack of clarity around the regulations.
“We should not lose sight of the fact that the operation was illegal,” Mr McIntyre said.
The review will look at the noise impact of drones on the community, the size, frequency and nature of drone operations (recreational and commercial), and existing safety regulations.
It will examine State and Territory regulations that commonly cover noise from equipment operating in urban environments, as well as developments overseas and industry innovation to reduce noise impacts through better drone design and varying flight paths.
The department will focus on those companies that propose to operate in residential areas, such as Wing.
Mr McIntyre said the decision was a vindication of his stance but the ball was now in the court of the Gungahlin community and the department.
“If the residents in that area are very much put out and complain in numbers such as what happened in Bonython, the whole thing would be viewed as a ‘public nuisance’, and there’s a particular passage in the regulations that directly say that if the aircraft noise is a public nuisance then the Secretary of the department has to revoke the approval that was given for operation,” he said.
“The Secretary issued an approval for this continuing operation on the north side of Canberra some time ago when they restarted so that approval is valid but if there is enough complaining about the noise and it hasn’t satisfactorily been resolved then the regulations state the Secretary will have to revoke the approval, and that will then stop Wing operating over Canberra completely.”
Wing has modified the propeller systems on its drones to reduce the high-pitched whine that so irritated Bonython residents.
Mr McIntyre said if this was the case and Wing modified transit paths and a few other things it could be ultimately acceptable to the bulk of people in the north.
He was confident that the department would now establish a proper regulatory framework for drones and ensure that all was above board in terms of noise control.
The department approved Wing’s community demonstration flights between 11 April and 13 April 2019, and its Early Flyer Program, which serves 100 homes in Crace, Palmerston and Franklin from 24 April 2019 to 31 May 2019, now extended to 31 July 2019.
Wing is limited to 90 flights a day and can only fly on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm, Saturday from 8 am to 4:30 pm, Sunday from 9 am to 4:30 pm, and none on public holidays.
The department says it will be assessing whether a longer-term approval may be granted to Wing based on feedback from other Government agencies, the results of noise testing, industry, aircraft operator and community feedback.
The model of drone being used in Wing’s operations has been tested at 55 decibels at 25 metres.
Wing must also collate all community feedback during the operational period and provide this to the department.
The company said in a statement that it secures all of the necessary permissions required to operate before flying. “We have been and will continue to work with the Australian Government on its review of drone regulations to ensure our continued compliance,” Wing said.