Too much red tape could keep drones grounded

[This article originally appeared in The Weekly Times]

From spraying pastures to collecting crop data, drones are set to revolutionise Australian agriculture. However, despite this enormous potential, calls for more regulation threaten to keep drones firmly on the ground.

The application of drones in agriculture alone is estimated to be worth an enormous $32 billion globally. How can Australian regulators make sure we embrace this revolution?

No one knows the future of drones and how they will be used. That’s why entrepreneurs must be allowed to experiment and test. But this entrepreneurial process requires a flexible regulatory system. What’s more, business investors will only be attracted to a regulatory environment that is both certain and stable.

Nevertheless, it appears Australia is about to backflip on last year’s decision to relax drone regulations. For farmers this is a worrying sign because the changes had freed them to fly drones under 25kg for use on private land.

Since the announcement, however, there have been increasing calls to reverse the changes and impose more red tape. Indeed, we now have a senate inquiry and an upcoming safety review. This regulatory uncertainty threatens the early stage investments necessary for our domestic drone industry to flourish.

Australia must resist the temptation to stifle development based on fear.

There have been no incidents of collisions with manned aircraft in Australia. And we still have strict rules preventing drones flying over 120m or within 5km of airports.

It’s also unclear why privacy concerns cannot be solved using existing legal principles such as harassment and trespass.

Regulators should cut even more red tape on drones. They should consider reviewing rules restricting autonomous flight and flying drones beyond visual line of sight. The agricultural drones of tomorrow may be autonomous ones, flying over vast properties, monitoring crop yields and detecting early plant diseases.

Australia is in a prime position to embrace drone technology. But this will only happen if we encourage entrepreneurship and investment through flexible and certain drone regulations.

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