AAUS: RPAS in Australian skies 2022 conference

Hotel Realm
Canberra ACT
Pip Spence
Chief Executive Officer and Director of Aviation Safety


Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we’re meeting and pay my respect to elders past and present.

I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

When I look at today’s RPAS sector I see a thriving industry that is not just in Australian skies — by some measures it’s taking over.


Our figures show the number of drone registrations is now almost three times the number of aircraft registrations.

We now have almost 35,000 distinct drone registrations on our books compared to just under 16,000 aircraft registrations. The number of people with a Remote Operator Certificate – ReOCs – is three times the number of AOCs.

And the number of licensed drone pilots – also known as a RePL holders, at last count, topped 24,400 and was fast approaching the 31,000 plus fixed wing and rotary pilots on our books.

The sector is also continuing to expand with the number of ReOCs two thirds higher than 2017-18, while the number of RePLs has close to doubled since 2018-19.

And this is not counting the more than 27,000 accredited operators, which includes people operating over their own land as well as in the sub 2 kilogram and micro-RPA categories.

And we can’t forget the significant boost the RPAS sector is giving the Australian economy. A study conducted by Deloitte Access Economics estimates drones contribute $5.5 billion to the economy, and this is expected to rise to $14.5 billion by 2040.

And in all this it bears mentioning that these extraordinary developments have been taking place with a remarkable measure of safety.

The Roadmap to the Future

Ongoing growth in the RPAS sector and an increasing emphasis on Advanced Air Mobility have sharpened our focus on the future and the goal of allowing all types of aircraft to share the skies.

From about 2026, we expect RPAS to have expansive access to lower-level airspace using technologies already in use that allow beyond and extended visual line of sight access in both urban and rural environments.

This is one reason we decided to do things a bit differently in how we worked with stakeholders to develop our recently released RPAS and Advanced Air Mobility Strategic Regulatory Roadmap, which is currently out for consultation until 19 April (shameless plug).

Traditionally CASA has tended to develop policy and then consult with industry on implementation through Technical Working Groups.

But this time, in response to the requirement in the Government’s National Emerging Aviation Technology Policy Statement. 

We wanted to consult with you and other industry stakeholders early on in the policy-making stage.

Given the very positive feedback I’ve received about this approach I’m pleased to see that the co-chairs of the RPAS and advanced air mobility strategic roadmap technical working group — Boeing’s Reece Clothier, CASA’s Sharon Marshall-Keefe and former CASA officer Luke Gumley — have been nominated as finalists is the AAUS leadership awards.

As the nomination explains, the co-chairs drove an intense effort involving 73 professionals across the industry and CASA to arrive at a roadmap that would help us focus on preparing for change.

The process recognised that much of what is happening today is so new, and is evolving so quickly, that no one organisation can solve the complex issues that need to be addressed. 

We wanted to provide a plan that outlined the long-term vision for the Australian RPAS and advanced air mobility regulatory regime and the integration of these technologies into the civil aviation system.

The document is intended to provide clarity about the nation’s future approach to aviation safety regulation and safety oversight.

No-one is pretending the changes will be easy and they span regulatory areas ranging from airspace design to licensing, operational certificates and flight rules.

They also see us venturing into relatively new areas such as cybersecurity.

CASA’s RPAS Program Manager, Sharon Marshall-Keeffe, is coming up next and will go into detail about the roadmap.

In broad-brush terms, however, it looks at four main categories of activities across the immediate future as well as the near-, medium- and long-term.

The four categories are:

Demystification of current regulations is about providing better guidance and tools to help industry understand how we operate under current regulations.

Digital enablement is about streamlining CASA’s administrative processes and approval times to keep pace with growth.

Regulatory change is about considering the impact of new technologies and the need to change regulations to ensure an acceptable level of safety for all airspace users.

Regulatory sandboxes is about inviting industry to work with CASA to test and innovate novel products, services, and concepts in an environment that is flexible and safe.

I’ll leave it to Sharon to tell you more about these four areas and how we arrived at the roadmap.

But I would just like to emphasise that the roadmap is relevant to everyone who uses our airspace.

This is not just an issue for RPAS and advanced air mobility operators, it is an issue for everyone who flies.

The future starts now

It’s often said that the future starts now and CASA was one of the regulators to recognise the importance of RPAS by providing a regulatory basis for the industry in its early years.

We’ve continued to support the sector as it has undergone its impressive growth.

In 2021, in partnership with Airservices Australia, we began a trial of digital airspace authorisations for commercially operated drones weighing less than 25 kilograms near major airports in Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.

We invited organisations holding an active ReOC to take part in an Automated Airspace Authorisations Trial aimed at streamlining requests for flights within the 5.5 KM restricted airspace around the three airports.

For those of you who don’t know - The system checks requests against the data held by CASA and Airservices to decide whether the operation can be automatically authorised.

If approved, operators are notified in pretty much real-time via a CASA-verified drone safety app.

The trial has been a huge success with more than 200 operators approved to take part and three app providers facilitating authorisations.

So what does it look like in practice - a professional photographer who once needed to apply for authorisation a minimum of 21 days in advance can now apply at 9am and be on site that afternoon with the tick from the regulator.

There is also a reduction in cost to the industry, which we estimate is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A recent public survey about the trial was overwhelmingly positive, with about half the respondents asking for similar programs at other airports. CASA is hopeful that the trial will continue and expand to include more sites.

A trial like this shows we can have remotely piloted aircraft operating in controlled airspace with the right authorisations.

We know the drones are there and if something goes wrong, we can identify who is involved.

Complementing the trial, we currently have eight apps that connect to our RPAS digital platform and show both commercial and recreational operators where they can and can’t fly their drones.

Unfortunately, we know that not all drone users are as responsible as the people gathered here today. Remotely piloted aircraft can be used with mischievous or malicious intent.

Australian airports tend to be close to cities so it’s hardly surprising when drones pop up in controlled airspace with generally greater operating restrictions.

This is often because someone is unaware of the rules, but the incident at London’s Gatwick Airport in 2018 demonstrated how even a report of drones in the wrong place can cause havoc.

CASA had been looking at drone detection prior to Gatwick and has continued to work with other agencies to ensure we’re at the forefront of RPAS detection.

A joint project by CASA, Airservices Australia and the Department of Defence covering most controlled aerodromes nationwide aims to detect unauthorised incursions into the 5.5km zone surrounding airports.

We’re constantly reviewing the data we receive from that surveillance so we can launch educational campaigns or engage directly with a pilot or organisation.

We work with local government, associations and businesses to spread the message about unwanted incursions while targeting peak drone-buying times such as Christmas.

campaigns in Alice Springs, Newcastle and the Gold Coast and we know the campaigns are having a positive impact.

The latest figures from the Gold Coast campaign conducted late last year saw a decrease in the number of illegal drone detections in the 5.5km zone

WA new campaign is now underway in Sydney after a spike in the number of drones detected in restricted airspace around Sydney Airport.

In this case, we have asked the City of Sydney to help with a targeted safety education campaign involving drone safety signage, and using local media and tourism centres – as well as community and industry groups.

These types of projects are the initial steps in the journey towards shared airspace.

We don’t have two sets of airspace that we can manage separately so we must find ways of supporting drones in airspace used by traditional aircraft.

And all sectors should talk about this together.

Know Your Drone

Our name gives it away, but aviation safety is a key issue for CASA and the explosion of drones for recreational use means a lot of inexperienced people now have access to the skies.

Launched in December 2019, CASA’s successful Know Your Drone campaign has been emphasising the essential rules of using a recreational drone.

Things like - staying below 400ft, keeping the drone within line of sight and staying at least 30 metres away from other people.

Retail engagement, interactive quizzes and even giant light projections on buildings have been used to drive home the message in what has been a multi award-winning campaign. 

Now the campaign has moved into schools with students across Australia getting a chance to build their skills as next-generation pilots.

Play Video 1 (40secs)

Children represent a growing proportion of the record number of Australians buying and flying drones for fun and recreation.

The new resources are designed to help these modern-day aviators develop a safe flying culture as they hone their skills in one of Australia’s fastest-growing technologies.

CASA has partnered with youth education specialists to develop a range of materials promoting drone safety aligned to the Australian curriculum.

As a vital complement to safety, we see education and safety promotion as important parts of our remit.

Drones offer an innovative opportunity to inspire students to develop their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills in a fun and engaging way.

We believe the classroom resources challenge creative thinking and problem solving among students as they develop a safe flying culture in schools.

This campaign is already emerging as another success: there were more than 500 downloads of the classroom resources in the first 16 days of the schools’ campaign.

We’ve also had some great feedback from teachers, and endorsements on social media.

The campaign launch attracted media attention from outlets ranging from specialist education magazines to the ABC’s Radio National. And we’ve recently been approached by the NSW Department of Education to do an episode of a children’s television show. 

Regulatory advances

Ahead of the issues that are flagged in our regulatory roadmap, it is important that our regulatory framework is keeping up with the needs of the sector.

In February, consultation closed on the Post Implementation Review of Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations and the accompanying manual of standards.

We wanted to see what was working well, what could work better and what would be needed in the future to support the rapidly growing RPAS sector.

Changes we are proposing include streamlining legal instruments such as directions, exemptions and approval conditions to build flexible, clear and consistent regulations for the industry.

The proposed regulatory amendments aim to benefit industry, reduce complexities and allow greater operational flexibility, as well as cutting red tape and reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens.

Among other things, they will see us automating low risk applications and authorisations, directly supporting innovation and deregulating indoor operations.

We received 255 responses to the review, and I’m pleased to say the feedback was largely positive and supportive of the proposed changes.

More than half of the respondents identified as RePL and ReOC holders and you’ll be able to see the results when a summary of the consultation is released in the coming months.

I would like to thank the members of the technical working group for their considerable contributions of time and expertise, as well as the broader industry and public for their valuable feedback.

We have made some early progress with the manual of standards as we work towards a potential make date for these amendments around August or September this year.


Before finishing, I did want to briefly turn to electric vertical take-off and landing – or eVTOL. These aircraft may not be autonomous at this stage but that’s the stated goal of several companies undertaking their development.

There are many companies around the world, including some of the big aerospace manufacturers, involved in this area as excitement builds about what the media has dubbed ‘air taxis.’

Some are already signing agreements with Australian operators.

Embraer subsidiary Eve has announced deals with Nautilus Aviation in Queensland, Sydney Seaplanes and Aviar and Helispirit in WA. This is in addition to Eve’s s partnership with Microflight.

Perth’s FlyEOne is also looking at starting a WA-based air taxi network using electric fixed wing aircraft. Although this is not eVTOL, it is still new technology heading our way.

How aviation copes with these changes has become a global issue and CASA has been talking to its counterparts overseas.

The US and the UK are countries where there is significant research and development being undertaken in this sector. 

The US Federal Aviation Administration and the UK Civil Aviation Authority recently announced an agreement to hold a range of bilateral and multilateral discussions on certification, validating new eVTOL aircraft, production, continued airworthiness, operations, and personnel licensing. 

In doing so, they emphasised the need to maintain the high safety standards that the public expects and said the new technology should use existing regulatory frameworks on which that strong safety record is founded.

CASA has a similar view and we have also been teaming up with other interested parties.

In December 2021, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure, Airservices and the state Government of Victoria to support advanced air mobility.

This will see us work closely with all parties in the MoU to develop an aligned regulatory environment that supports growth and innovation in the advanced air mobility sector.

We want to collaborate with the other agencies and the sector to develop a common understanding of what is required to help the industry achieve regulatory readiness.

Greater regulatory clarity will come as we get to see what new technology looks like and we get a better sense of the uses to which it will be put.

Again, a major challenge will be integrating the airspace so that these different operations — legacy aircraft, hybrids, RPAS and advanced air mobility — can work together.


We’ve seen an explosion of business, research and government uses for drones and I’m certain we’ll see more.

Some of the new technologies and uses are already visible to us but others are still germinating in laboratories and with entrepreneurs.

In a move to identify these still hidden developments, CASA has established a Future Strategies Taskforce so that we can prepare and deliver appropriate regulatory responses in a timely manner.

We are surveying a wide range of organisations, at home and abroad, asking them to tell us about technologies they are researching that could have implications for aviation.

This is another way we’re working with the industry.

The Future Strategies Taskforce and the Regulatory Road Map can be viewed as the launchpads for putting the crewed and uncrewed sector on the same page in terms of co-existence. 

We know that change can be challenging, but if we continue with the kind of effort that went into putting together the roadmap, we can build a future that will benefit us all.

I look forward to sharing it with you.

Thank you.

Online version available at: https://www.casa.gov.au//aaus-rpas-australian-skies-2022-conference
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