Drones - an excellent tool, within limits

This article was first published in Infrastructure magazine.

The use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), or drones (pilot-less aircraft), is growing exponentially in New Zealand and is expected to continue to grow at pace as new commercial uses are found. 

Already they are being widely used in the real estate industry, for aerial photography in all forms and in news gathering, and new applications are developing quickly – even if we have yet to see the arrival of postal ‘delivery by drone’ in New Zealand.

The efficiency and productivity potential they offer is immense.  They can also be a fun, if expensive, recreational toy.

But they are aircraft and pose a number of safety risks, especially close to controlled and busy airspace and over densely populated areas.  There are also significant privacy implications.

So it was only a matter of time before the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) joined aviation regulators around the world in setting down some rules for use.  These came into force on 1 August. 

Operators must obtain prior consent from people before they fly over them or their land.  If this cannot be obtained, or is impracticable, application can be made to the Director of Civil Aviation for a certificate of approval.

The operational regulations are in two parts.  Part One applies to RPAs weighing 25 kg or less and requires that the operator:

  • ensure before each use that the aircraft is safe to operate
  • take all practicable steps to minimise hazards to persons, property and other aircraft
  • fly only in daylight
  • give way to all crewed aircraft
  • keep the RPA within eyesight (i.e. not through binoculars) and clear of cloud
  • not fly above 120 metres of the ground
  • be familiar with the airspace restrictions applying in the area of operation
  • not fly closer than 4 km of any aerodrome
  • obtain an air traffic control clearance when flying in controlled airspace, and
  • not fly in special use airspace without the permission of the controlling authority (e.g. military operating areas, low flying zones).

RPAs weighing between 15 and 25 kg must also be constructed or inspected, approved and operated under the authority of a person or association recognised for this purpose by the CAA.  Currently the only approved organisation is Model Flying New Zealand. 

Operators who cannot comply with the Part One minimum requirements, or who wish to fly an RPA weighing more than 25 kg, must be certificated by the Director of Civil Aviation under Part Two of the regulations.

To obtain a certificate, applicants must submit an “exposition” showing that they have identified and mitigated all relevant hazards and risks.  Each application will be considered on its merits.

All RPAs must operate within a permitted radio frequency to avoid harmful interference to air traffic control or cell phone and emergency services.  People who use the wrong frequencies can be prosecuted under the Radiocommunications Act 1989.


RPAs have the potential to be intrusive when fitted with cameras.  The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has recommended that users follow its guidelines for CCTV use. 

These include clearly identifying before use that your purpose for using the RPA is justified and that there are no equally effective alternatives; having a clear plan about how the system will be operated and how the privacy impacts will be minimised, collecting only necessary images and using them only for the purposes for which they were collected.  

For further information please contact the lawyers featured.

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