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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) technology is rapidly gaining in popularity, both for commercial and recreational use. It is being used a range of ways — in scientific research, engineering, film and TV production, photography, agriculture, power line inspection, and search and rescue work. In future, we may even see such technology used for goods delivery.

The Government is committed to having a thriving and successful UAV sector in this country. Their use in business is an innovative direction the Government is keen to support, as it will bring the commercialisation of new products and services, creating more jobs for New Zealanders.

A government agency, Callaghan Innovation(external link), is supporting the development of this technology in New Zealand.

All New Zealand universities are now using UAVs as part of their research efforts. Massey University is offering unmanned aircraft pilot training. An area of restricted airspace in New Zealand has been set aside specifically for the testing of UAVs by the University of Canterbury’s Spatial Engineering Research Centre(external link).

UAV safety rules

This technology, however, comes with safety risks.

New safety rules came into force in New Zealand for UAVs on 1 August 2015.

These new rules are relatively flexible, allowing for the growth of fast developing technology — while retaining safety as a key priority.

The rules are risk-based, which means they consider the safety risks of an operation, rather than the purpose of the operation (eg recreation or commercial).

Unlike some countries, such as the United States, our rules do not distinguish between commercial and recreational operations. In Australia and the United States, commercial unmanned aircraft operations are illegal, unless the aviation regulator grants permission.

Many commercial operations will be possible without an application to the NZ Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for certification (under Rule Part 101) – as long as the operator abides by simple rules such as flying only during the day, below 120 metres, more than 4km from an aerodrome.

Operators can apply to CAA for certification to operate UAVs outside these rules if they have a plan to mitigate safety risks.

Operators wishing to fly a drone beyond the line of sight need to be certificated to do so by the CAA. Operators need to satisfy the CAA they have a plan in place to effectively manage the safety risks of having their UAV go beyond their line of sight.

For information on the new safety rules, see the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)(external link) web page and the Airways Airshare(external link) UAV hub.

If you have specific concerns about a possible rule breach related to the safety of a UAV operation, please contact the Civil Aviation Authority(external link). Operating UAVs in breach of civil aviation rules could lead to a fine, a written warning, or prosecution by the CAA.

More comprehensive rules may be developed in future once the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)(external link) sets standards for this technology. New Zealand is represented on the ICAO RPAS Panel to help develop these standards and related guidance.

Privacy

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner(external link) has commented(external link) on how relevant New Zealand privacy law applies to the use of UAVs. The Office considers there are sufficient laws already in place in New Zealand to protect people’s privacy with regard to UAVs. The Office has stated while UAVs are a new and emerging technology, the threat they pose to privacy is consistent with the use of any camera (including mobile phones or automated CCTV systems).

The Office's CCTV guidelines(external link) apply to UAVs fitted with cameras and provides guidance on how to comply with the Privacy Act. There are also other laws in New Zealand relevant to using UAVs to film or record. For example, it is against the law to make covert intimate recordings of people without their consent or knowledge, and to publish them.

Commercialisation and investment opportunities

New Zealand offers many advantages for businesses that may be interested in testing or investing in UAVs.