SkyStock (SS): Tell us how you became The Drone Lawyer?
Tom: Luck and timing. While I’m certainly not the first lawyer to practice in drone law, it seems that I was one of the first putting themselves out there as specialising in this area. My professional interest was sparked when I noticed the change in the law in about September 2016 when “excluded category” operations came into place, which as the readers will know, in short, allowed pilots to fly sub-2kg drones commercially under the standard RPA operating conditions. For better or worse, this development signalled to me that the lawmakers were opening up this area of technology rather than snuffing it out leading to a growth in the sector.
SS: How have you found drone law progressing since it became a focus of yours?
Tom: In the years that have followed excluded category operations, there has definitely been more and more regulation. While I know most pilots would be against this, in my experience, this has largely facilitated, rather strangled, the use of drones in commerce. I appreciate that it’s certainly not perfect and some drone operations cannot get off the ground due to being tied down with red tape, but this is true of many innovative technologies where the regulator is trying to find the right mix between regulating the technology while minimising the risk. The more the law changes, the greater the need for someone to stay on top of it and assist pilots so they can spend more time in the sky and less time getting their heads around the regulations.
SS: Any interesting cases you have been involved in?
Tom: For a fuddy-duddy boring lawyer baptised in commercial law, the drone cases have been an adrenaline sport. I’ve been involved in many interesting drone cases. This has including representing clients being investigated by CASA – whether that be for allegedly using a drone to carry a human; strapping and firing rockets from their drones; or flying too close to a controlled aerodrome.
I’ve advised TV stations who wanted to fly near sensitive areas, drone schools on some of the more ambiguous parts of the regulations, as well as companies who are developing weaponised drones for defence purposes, and companies looking at urban aerial spraying applications.
SS: You have also created The Drone Pilot’s Legal Handbook. Who is that useful for and how often are you needing to update it?
Tom: The Drone Pilot’s Legal Handbook is for anyone involved in the drone industry who either wants to start their own business, already flies commercially, or is generally interested in some of the key legal concepts involved in operating a drone business. The Handbook provides guidance around general commercial issues such as contracts, intellectual property and employment, as well as drone specific areas such as CASA investigations and complex drone operations. It aims to be as practical as possible and includes ‘Practical Tips’ many of which can be immediately apply to a drone business.
SS: The law seems to change all the time, how often do you update it?
Tom: As to the updates, there is no set time because the law can change at any point. I am continuously scanning the law and when I identify a change that may affect or improve the Handbook, I prepare an update. However, the Handbook is more of a guidance manual than a drilling into the mind-numbing detail of the regulations. As a result, it typically does not need to be updated every single time there is a change in the law. Our most recent update made on 29 June 2021, has updated sections on the business structures chapter, the contracts chapter, the employment chapter, the intellectual property chapter, as well as the latest developments on the regulation of drone noise and the drone registration fee.
SkyStock members can receive a 20% discount off the handbook. Log into your Dashboard to receive the code.
SS: Anything the handbook doesn’t cover?
Tom: It does not go into detail on the Civil Aviation Act 1988, Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 or other aviation specific law. This is for two reasons; first, it is assumed that the reader acquired a fair understanding of the aviation law during their RePL/ReOC course; second, a handbook on the aviation law would be its own separate beast (I am working on this).
SS: Another hat you wear is President of the Association of Australian Certified UAV Operators (ACUO). Tell us about this organisation?
Tom: The Association of Australian Certified UAV Operators (ACUO) was built with a focus on ReOC holders. Before I joined the Management Committee, ACUO was instrumental in representing its members in the government consultation process when changes were proposed to the regulations. We have continued this work, responding to various proposed changes on behalf of our members.
SS: What is your aim for this organisation you now head up?
Tom: One of ACUO’s aim is to represent our members to assist with more standardised, transparent and facilitative approval processes. Many of our members seem to find themselves in what I call the “middle squeeze.” On one hand, you have the maverick commercial operators who generally disregard the regulations, run a risky job and do it quickly and cheaply – but not properly, but it’s attractive to non-discerning customers who may not know any better. On the other hand, there are huge operators with really deep pockets on large-scale jobs. Then in between these two is the vast majority of commercial operators – they follow the rules, do things properly, but are often unfairly disadvantaged in the market for doing so. I think there are 2 ways to tackle this; First, greater awareness by customers of what a properly and safely conducted drone operation requires, including the expansion of timelines on some jobs to allow for approvals. Second, to contribute to government and CASA consultations to push for regulations that alleviate the “middle squeeze” to allow these operators to have more streamlined and consistent approval processes.
SS: Finally, what do you see as the greatest legal issues affecting the drone industry in Australia moving forward?
Tom: I think that it’s likely to be the regulation that will follows the Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure’s recent National Emerging Aviation Technologies Policy Statement. This Statement looks at how drones will be integrated into the broader economy and into society. In combination with the $30 million set out in the 2021/22 Budget to go towards drone initiatives, this demonstrates the Government’s commitment to drone initiatives and signals the longevity of drones as another meaningful sector of the economy, as well as a tool to increase efficiencies in many other sectors. This will inevitably mean more regulation, which is likely to lead to a further maturation of the market. This might be too much for some operators who will opt out, and I don’t blame them; and others will forge on and carve out a space for their operations. In the meantime. I will continue to inform, advise and represent my clients and the industry so as to keep the skies fair and open.
You can also purchase a copy of the Drone Pilot’s Legal Handbook at https://dronemasterclassacademy.com/p/legal-handbook-australia-salespage. SkyStock members can receive a 20% discount off the handbook. Log into your Dashboard to receive the code.
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