What is the best drone to buy?

I’m often asked ‘what is the best drone to buy?’ (For rural or urban use, commercial or recreational purposes.)

And many are asking the views of randoms on Facebook – and taking advice from people who know just enough to be dangerous.  Or, seeking ag drone advice from people unfamiliar with their specific agricultural industry or the challenges involved in rural & remote Australia.

The information below is based on solid hands-on experience; see the bottom of this page for my drone-related qualifications & experience. In summary:

  • I’ve owned & flown a number of drones.
  • I run drone introductory sessions & masterclasses across Australia and in September 2018, was the first Australian to present a session at America’s largest commercial drone conference, InterDrone; & will be presenting on drones in agriculture at a drone conference in Amsterdam next April.
  • The drone training sessions I run are holistic and based on hands-on experience. A large amount of very useful related information is included, so participants save time and money, fly more safely and put their drones to better use.  Drone workshops can include aerial photography advice as well. Contact me if you’d like more details.
Outback drone photography - on OBE Organic's Adria Downs Station, Birdsville

Outback drone photography – on OBE Organic’s Adria Downs Station, Birdsville

There’s a lot of detail here but it’s important to note – the internet is chock-full of drones & accessories cost the owners thousands of dollars, that are being sold after just a few flights (at a loss of many hundreds of dollars, or more than $1,000). If you don’t want to waste time or money, it’s worth doing decent research before buying a drone.

Want to buy & fly a drone? First:

  • If in Australia: download the  ‘Can I fly there’ app and enter the location where you intend to fly your drone most of the time, to check you are legally allowed to do so. And visit the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and read the drone laws that apply to your situation, to check it’s safe & legal to do what you have in mind.
  • If in another country: visit your federal government’s national aviation body & read up on the drone laws. There may also be an official drone app which you can download which shows where you can and can’t fly drones. In the US it’s the Federal Aviation Administration; Canada: Transport Canada & in the UK it is the Civil Aviation Authority.
  • Also – be aware that the remit of aviation authorities is to ensure aviation safety. There’s also federal, state and local authority laws preventing drone flights in specific areas – from coastal ports to urban parks to defence facilities and prisons (including prison farms).  The onus is on drone operators to ensure they have thoroughly checked (‘ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law’).
  • The internet is full of people who’ve spent a thousand or two buying a drone, only to find they live too close to controlled airspace to fly where they want to, without a drone licence and special permission; or what they want to do just isn’t safe or legal.  EG checking bores on stations (out of line of sight). Don’t risk buying an expensive paperweight – check before buying.

Then:

Buying a drone is like buying a car.  The vital consideration is: what do you (or the operator) specifically want a drone to do (what will the drone be used for), and who will be flying it (child or adult, experienced or inexperienced)?

In simple terms, the 5 main choice-related considerations:

  1. Portability
  2. Visibility (how far you can fly it legally is determined by how far away you can see it)
  3. Quality of images (or the ability to use other kinds of sensors)
  4. Price
  5. Wind resistance – likely to be a consideration if you fly drones in coastal areas.

What is best for you depends on which of the above considerations matters most to you. List your personal priorities in order.

Summary of different drone features to consider, and their significance in relation to completing the required tasks:

  • Portability: size & weight. Will you be carting it around on a motorbike, in a ute, or on a plane?  In your pockets or a large hard case?
  • Quality of the inbuilt camera: which really only matters a lot if you want to sell drone photographs; otherwise, most inbuilt cameras on larger drones are good enough (producing quality aerial images and videos is much more difficult than on the ground; buying a top quality drone camera is a waste without the experience to get the best out of it.)  Some of the smaller drones have camera specs & output that match larger, much more expensive drones – so don’t presume bigger/more expensive = better quality image creation ability. Although very small drones usually don’t offer the ability to record ‘raw’ image files; only JPEGs.
  • Ability to attach other cameras and sensors:  rather than just use inbuilt cameras and sensors – are you wanting to use your drone for mapping, for example?
  • Capacity to carry other weight:  eg spray units (bearing in mind that using drone spray units requires licencing and special permission; IE you progress to this point rather than start from it.)
  • Number of motors: quadcopters [4 motor drones] drop like rocks if one motor fails. Octocopters & hexacopters can usually keep flying.  For licenced pilots this matters, because special permission may be granted by CASA to fly higher or closer to people than would be the case with just a quadcopter. But quadcopters are usually much cheaper & simpler.
  • Weight of the drone:  heavier drones usually fly more smoothly in strong winds.  Lighter drones struggle to film smooth videos. Will you be making videos, and flying your drone in an area where it’s often windy?  Small light drones can struggle in coastal areas. Strong winds also chew through battery power, shortening flight times.
  • Noise: if you want to muster livestock out of holding paddocks with your drone, noise is an advantage. Some later models drones are quieter than earlier models – so they’d be less useful for moving stock.
  • Power:  affects speed, lift capacity, steadiness in the wind etc.  Cost is fairly directly related to power.
  • Longevity/durability:  is less of an issue; as drones are rapidly superceded by machines with much better specs. So most drones are redundant long before their moving parts wear out. (Contrary to what is said on drone Facebook groups, careful drone pilots very rarely crash. If you crash your drone it’s probably because you made mistakes.)
  • Range (transmission range – controller to drone):  is not an issue because the controller-to-drone transmission range for most current drones is way beyond VLOS; ie they cannot be legally flown to the edge of transmission range (without licencing plus special BVLOS permission, which is very hard to obtain, for sound safety reasons). IE ignore ‘5km range’ and ‘7km range’ on advertising material because a small drone cannot possibly be seen by the operator even 1 kilometre away, even in ideal atmospheric conditions.  (The fact that drone retailers are still advertising ranges that are way beyond what is legal illustrates the dearth of basic drone knowledge amongst retailers – or the fact that many only care about the sale, not the customer or aviation safety.)
  • Speed: is also worth ignoring – unless you’re buying a racing drone.  The top speed advertised with drones is usually not available in all modes, and super-fast speed is rarely required. It’s also worth noting that current collision avoidance sensors do not usually work at top speeds.  (Logical when you think about it but it continues to amaze, how many fly their drones full-tilt at solid objects then complain when their aerial robot is not able to sense and brake before impact.)

And –

Drone batteries:

  • Flight time – when new, drone batteries last for a few minutes up to 31 minutes; depending on the brand and flight conditions. (Current drone batteries don’t last long but of course battery life will improve as technology evolves.)
  • Number of batteries the drone requires (more than 1 battery, with dual redundancy, means that if one battery fails in flight, the other will allow the drone to be flown and safely landed)
  • Capacity of the drone batteries. Current CASA and airline rules re the carriage of dangerous goods (eg lithium batteries for drones) state that below 100w the quantity carried is discretionary. Above 100w there are limitations on the number that can be carried.  Larger drones usually have more batteries and they’re higher capacity, fewer of which can be carried on airlines. So this should be considered if you want to take your drone on planes.  It may be necessary to send your extra batteries as cargo (rather than on a passenger plane) or by road.  Rules for carriage of dangerous goods on airlines are discussed and formulated by the IATA (International Air Transport Association) so rules tend to be similar across airlines; but always check CASA’s ‘carriage of dangerous goods’ section as well as the relevant information on the website of the specific airlines you’ll be flying with.  Some airlines now insist drones must be in checked luggage rather than hand luggage (but batteries still in carry-on). Airlines can and do change these rules overnight, so check before you leave for the airport.
  • Lithium batteries that power drones are expensive. The current price for Phantom 4 batteries is around $280 each, and batteries for larger machines are more than $300.
Farm drone photography (High Country, Victoria)

Farm drone photography (High Country, Victoria)

Which model of drone is best?

Just like cars, there are different drones for specific purposes; and drones that are more multi-purpose. If you buy a tiny, easy-to-park & economical town car it will be great for that purpose but if you take it bush-bashing you’ll be disappointed.  Choose your horse for the right course.

Like cars, there are many different brands of drones and a variety that are considered good quality.  But for simplicity’s sake I’ve concentrated on the most common brand of consumer drones: DJI.  It’s like the Toyota of drones. Because:

  • DJI drones are readily available everywhere – easy to find
  • The internet is full of ‘how to’ videos and problem solving for various models of DJI drones
  • Easy to find accessories for (new & secondhand)
  • Most spare parts are readily available and they can be repaired by the mechanically or technology-minded at home
  • Competitively priced and easy to sell secondhand when upgrading

1. Ryze Tello & Parrot Mambo:

  • Both are a very small drones, weighing less than 100g and costing less than two hundred dollars.
  • These drones are learning and recreational tools, not useful for work purposes.
  • However though these small drones are often referred to as ‘toys’, they should not be treated as toys and given to children to fly unsupervised. A spinning propellor across an eyeball can cause permanent damage, and the props easily tangle in long hair. Children flying drones should be supervised and wear protective glasses. (A session on how to best manage children & drones, with other advice, is included in my drone workshops.)
  • Image and video quality isn’t too bad considering the tiny size of these machines – but not usable for anything much other than social media posts (& no option to record ‘raw’ image files).
  • The smaller & cheaper the drone the harder they tend to be to fly, but as they’re light they’re fairly tough; and they are great for training.
  • Usually controlled via a phone, however cheap control units can be purchased which makes them much easier to fly (less lag).
  • These drones use VPS not GPS – so they can easily fly indoors (as long as the surface below isn’t too reflective or bland), but it’s best to have prop guards fitted when inside buildings to protect eyes, faces and walls from damage.
  • The transmission range is short – they cannot fly far from the operator (usually less than 30 metres, but it varies according to conditions)
  • Batteries only last for a few minutes.
  • Being so light, Tello and Mambo drones struggle even in a light breeze.
  • As these two drones weigh less than 100g, have a low transmission distance and short battery life –  they can be flown in some areas where 100g plus drones are not permitted, as the smaller drones are deemed to not pose a risk to aviation safety & minimal risk to people or property.
  • Tellos and Mambos don’t require complicated software updates or a licence to operate.
  • There’s fun but educational free-to-download software that kids can use to programme them. EG Tynker.
  • (Note – DJI sells Tellos & provides components for them; but they’re designed by Ryze.)

2. DJI Spark:

  • Primarily designed for the cashed-up selfie taker.
  • Ideal for travelling light – fits into a big pocket or handbag & can be operated via a mobile phone screen rather than a dedicated controller.
  • Relatively cheap.
  • The compromise is a poorer quality camera & gimbal and due to lightness & less power, Sparks struggle in wind; but handy for putting up for a look (eg checking spot fires).
  • Maximum battery life of 16 minutes.
  • Much shorter range – the transmission range is shorter, but in any case, being smaller, Spark drones are less visible from a distance.
  • Yuneec Breeze is a similar brand & model to consider, and Parrot may have something similar.

3. DJI Mavic – Mavic 2 Pro, Mavic 2 Zoom, Mavic Air, original Mavics:

  • DJI’s Mavic drones are designed to fold up – so they’re easy to cart around & less likely to be damaged in transit.
  • Mavic Drones are not standard-pocket sized but fit easily into a backpack or carry-on luggage and are not hard to cart around in a ute or tractor. The Mavic Air will fit into large pockets on jackets & the drone has an excellent case it fits neatly into.
  • Mavic drones are hundreds of dollars more than the price of the Spark – you get a better quality camera and it handles wind better.
  • Primary differences between the Mavic 2 Pro & Mavic 2 Zoom, released in August 2018 – the Mavic 2 Pro has a 1″ sensor; the same size as the larger & more expensive Phantom 4 Pro; whereas the Mavic 2 Zoom has the same size sensor as the original Mavic, but the lens will zoom from 24mm to 48mm. 24mm is a wide angle lens (so things appear further away than they actually are) whereas 50mm is the standard for DSLR cameras – it’s what most closely approximates the what is seen by human eyes.  So it’s important to note that 48mm still won’t get you up close to animals or people (unlike a 120, 200mm or longer lens).
  • Mavic Air: the Air was released in early 2018. It is cheaper, smaller and lighter than the original Mavics and the Mavic 2’s – thus a lot more portable; yet said to handle the same strength wind and the top speed is not much below the larger Mavics.  The Air flight time is slightly shorter and there are a few less important feature differences, but the photography-related specs are identical to the original Mavics – something that is often overlooked, as the Air is so much smaller. IE if you are buying a drone to take photographs out the paddock or to take travelling, and space is a top priority, you’d chooes to buy the Air not a larger Mavic. The Mavic 2’s and Mavic Air also have 8GB of onboard storage, handy if you’ve forgotten to put a memory card back into it after downloading images.  You’d choose a Mavic 2 Pro if image quality plus portability is your number one priority or you need a drone to withstand higher winds – but you’ll be paying a lot more money for it.
  • I’ve owned a Mavic Air – I think it’s the most neatly designed portable drone on the market (sold it only because it wasn’t being used enough – sad to part with it!)  And, you can get red ones. I’d recommend the Mavic Air as being the best choice for most travellers.
  • Mavic Pros are the most popular drones on farms & stations in Australia, due to their portability.
  • Remember that drones are like cars – usually people will talk up the brand or model they own. If you’re on a farm or station, a Phantom or a Mavic Air may actually suit you better than a Mavic Pro – so consider all 3 models carefully.

4. DJI Phantom 4 Pro Version 2:

  • Due to a combination of features, durability, ease of use and price – DJI’s Phantom drones were the world’s most popular consumer drone. However they have been superceded by the Mavics & this looks set to continue, with the release of the very popular Mavic 2 Pro, which has the same size sensor as the Phantom 4 Pro Version 2.
  • Phantom drones are not as portable as the Spark and Mavics so less practical for carting around in a ute and not suited to carrying on a motorbike, but can squeeze into most carry-on suitcases (along with batteries, which must be in carry-on luggage, not checked baggage. But always check airline spec for rule changes, before flying.) If a Phantom is carted around a cattle station or farm it should be kept in a hard case – quite bulky.  The upside is that if you get a good case you can get the drone out & going a lot quicker, and pack it up faster – there’s no stuffing around unfolding/folding it all.
  • Because Phantom drones have legs, they can be safely catch-landed – thus keeping them out of dust and moisture when landing.
  • The heavier weight of the Phantom means they handle stronger winds – smoother videos.
  • The quality of the Phantom 4 Pro V 2 and Mavic 2 Pro photographs are very similar but still not as good as photos from professional quality camera equipment used by photographers in planes and helicopters, or the far more expensive models of drones (which weigh over 2kg, thus entering another licencing category). However the image output is close enough to be usable for most commercial jobs, if done with care; and the images are certainly good enough for on-farm purposes.
  • A Phantom drone can manage all the basic uses on a farm or cattle station.
  • The Phantom’s combination of attributes comes at a higher price than the Spark and Mavic, but starters may be able to pick up brand new earlier models for a fraction of the current model price.
  • The Phantom 4Pro was on the market for an unusually long time – 2 years.  The 2018 Phantom 4 Pro V 2 is an upgrade but not a huge one, so it’s likely that an upgraded model will arrive in 2019 (hopefully DJI won’t discontinue the Phantom range).
  • Yuneec Typhoon is another brand & model to consider.
  • I’ve owned a Phantom 4, Phantom 4 Pro, and the Phantom 4 Pro V 2.  I don’t have the patience for faffing around with folding stuff and I like catch landing, so the P4P V2 suits me best.

Fiona Lake – taking photographs with DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro drone (photograph taken just before sunrise)

5. DJI Inspire & Matrice:

  • These drones are for professional cinematographers & agricultural users engaging in activities such as vegetation mapping (not just straightforward photography).
  • Not the drones to buy when you are starting out, these are drones to buy once a smaller, simpler drone is mastered and you really need something more sophisticated to accomplish the jobs you need to do.
  • Drones weighing more than 2kg can only legally be operated by licenced drone pilots unless you’re a primary producer flying over your own land  and the drone is under 25kg – but see the CASA website for the precise details on this, and weight limits. Note also that a licence is required to operate a spray drone of any kind.
  • The Inspire and Matrice are worth thousands of dollars more than the lighter and much simpler drone models mentioned above.

6. Other drones used for agricultural jobs:

  • Hexacopters, octocopters & fixed wing RPAS – can fly in stronger winds, carry heavier payloads, fly longer/cover larger areas and have other sensors & equipment attached to them.  But they are bulkier, heavier, more complicated, cost a lot more and most require CASA licencing to legally operate.  As mentioned above, these are not drones for beginners.

Larger, more expensive drones usually have greater redundancy. EG they have dual IMUs and compasses, multiple batteries and motors. Flying near people, around buildings and beyond visual line of sight requires drones with maximum fail-safe measures built in. But drone hardware is relatively simple compared to software; hardware rarely fails. Drone software is incredibly complex and this is where problems most often occur.

As is the case for mobile phones, the specs of earlier model drones aren’t as good as the latest.  If you’re buying a drone for someone who is likely to crash it, then an earlier model or secondhand is the way to go.  Bearing in mind – like general aviation, current drones are sophisticated machines that only crash due to pilot error (including lack of planning & foresight) – with the exception of software or hardware failure (that is not due to mistreatment or lack of software or hardware maintenance).  Drone pilots should not rely on obstacle avoidance systems, for example.  These are topics that are covered in drone workshops.

Summary of which drone to buy when you are starting out/just learning:

  • Firstly – I don’t recommend buying a ‘small drone just to start with, then upgrading’. Because: a) bigger drones such as the P4 are as easy to fly as the smallest drones and in some cases, much easier; & b) it’s just a waste of money.  If you’re not sure if you’ll like flying drones, I recommend attending a training workshop, heading out to fly a drone with a friend who owns one, or perhaps buying a cheap secondhand drone or old model.
  • What you choose to buy boils down to budget and use. If you want top consumer drone image quality & you want to be able to open the case & fly your drone with the minimum amount of fuss setting it up – get a Phantom 4 Pro V2. (Also best for catch-landing, which is an important factor for most users in rural environments.)
  • If portability is of utmost concern along with top consumer drone image quality – buy a Mavic 2 Pro.
  • If ultra portability is your number one concern – you want something that will fit into large pockets or a handbag – buy a Mavic Air (image quality matches the Mavic Pro).
  • If you just want the cheapest or smallest drone – consider buying a Spark, Tello or Mambo. But be aware that the mid-price range – eg the Spark – is so often too much of a compromise to be worthwhile or good value.  I’d recommend buying a Mavic Air instead of a Spark, if you have the money – yes it costs more but the image quality matches the Mavic Pro & it’s very portable.
  • If buying a drone for young children – you could buy a very small drone for less than two hundred dollars, such as a Parrot Mambo or a Ryze Tello.  The Parrot Mambo is an ideal drone for primary school age children to learn to fly because it is small and light but surprisingly tough, comes with prop guards for safety and doesn’t require complicated software updates or a licence to operate. (Note that children flying drones  of any size should also be supervised, and wear protective glasses.  More advice for parents is included in the drone workshops I run.) These small drones are best flown indoors. Plus, there’s some fun but educational free-to-download software such as Tynker that kids can use to programme (code) the drone.  But Parrot Mambos are learning tools, suitable for indoor flying not for farm or station work.  The smaller & cheaper the drone the harder they tend to be to fly, but this is great training for kids.
  • Remember that whatever drone you buy, it’s likely to be superceded by a much better model within 12-18 months. Durability isn’t something you should need to consider; as for safety reasons, drones should be looked after, to ensure they don’t fall out of the sky.
  • Essential accessories should be factored into budget calculations (details of what drone accessories are vital and what are superfluous, are included in longer drone workshops).
  • Drones used as genuine tools with an authentic track record of helping to produce income can be claimed as a tax deduction (but do check with your accountant for details).
  • Also – check when the model you’re considering was created. If it’s more than 12 – 18months old it’s likely to be superceded (& discounted) soon.
  • Buying secondhand – checking the hardware is obvious, but battery life must be scrutinised carefully also. Frequently used batteries will have a reduced charging capacity. (Best-practice battery care – to keep their charge capacity up – is detailed in drone workshops.)  As with all secondhand electronic equipment, drone gear is best purchased from people you know well, or from well-established professionals/business owners.
  • Do check the CASA website or with a licenced training professional prior to purchasing, to ensure that what you want to do with your drone will be legal. More information on safety laws towards the bottom of the post.
  • If you’re buying a drone for someone who can’t be trusted to follow (safety) rules or who doesn’t look after gear (which can render a drone unsafe), do the world a favour and do not buy them a drone at all.  Drones should not be treated like toys and left with children, unsupervised.  (More on drone safety & laws, below; as well as in workshops.)

Where to buy your drone, if buying new:

Today’s drones are like ducks swimming. They’re easy to fly – because there’s so much work going on out of sight. Drones will evolve in ways we can’t imagine but they’re already extremely sophisticated machines. Very complex software means much can go wrong and glitches are common, testing the patience of even the most dedicated of problem solvers.

If you’re buying a Mavic or Phantom drone or anything larger/more expensive, the benefits involved in buying from a good quality, local specialty retailer are really worth having.  Yes you may be able to get your drone out of the box and just fly it, but there’s a good chance that sooner or later you’ll have a headache that’s hard to solve on your own.

Services provided by good drone retailers – drone specialists who really know the market:

  • Reliable advice on what drone and accessories will best suit your specific purposes (the vast majority of drone retailers are clueless and some are unethical. I personally know several drone retailers who have told primary producers they can legally fly drones out of sight).
  • Set the drone up for you – download the latest software & ensure everything is functioning as it should (this really matters, because like all tech, some drones are lemons from the outset & if you’re new to drones, you won’t know what’s a machine problem & what’s operator error).
  • Hands-on introduction, at a low or no cost.
  • Provide basic advice on where to get information re laws and operation.
  • Give locally specific tips eg maximum or minimum operating temperature for your drone batteries, good spots to learn to fly.
  • Provide assistance with trouble-shooting.
  • Repair your machine or assess & send it away for you.
  • Help with warranty claims.

Bear in mind that very, very few people who are selling drones, actually know anything about them. They may sound entirely plausible – but ask them if they fly drones themselves (and if so, what model/s).

Buying drones overseas:

  • Unlikely to be covered by warranty in Australia, only in the country of purchase.
  • There are airfreight restrictions on lithium batteries, so freight could be an issue.
  • Starves local drone retailers of the profit they need to enable them to provide quality after-sales service (& local employment) & stock a wider range of drone, parts & accessories – you know those last minute items you need.

Drone workshops:

The above information is a small section of what is discussed during ‘drones in ag’ workshops. At present there is very little professional-quality drone advice or training available, apart from CASA’s drone licencing, which is very expensive, time consuming and not easy for anyone unused to studying and exams.

Some good information on drones can be found in LinkedIn and on Twitter; however Facebook is awash with misinformation. And there’s almost no information on how to ensure your children are operating a drone safely and within the law.

You may like to approach your local council, chamber of commerce, library, ag industry or rural women’s organisation or get a group together yourself for a workshop, as lots of other very useful detail is covered.  Drone workshops can cover an introduction to agricultural uses (including business opportunities in rural areas) or aerial photography – or both streams.   I run workshops for all ages and levels of experience; and have a particular interest in growing ag tech confidence amongst girls and women, particularly in rural and remote areas.

Read some comments from previous workshop participants.

Agricultural drone photography - irrigated rice, Riverina (NSW)

Agricultural drone photography – irrigated rice, Riverina (NSW)

Drone safety

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is in charge of anything man-made that is airborne, apart from small kites and party balloons.  Holding freehold ownership of land does not give the owner the legal right to do whatever they like in the sky above it. Australia has one of the world’s best aviation safety reputations and it’s due to our strict laws and enforcement of them.

The bottom line is – would you want yourself or a family member to be hit by a falling drone, or be in an aircraft or vehicle that crashed due to a collision with a drone? Or see anybody’s eye gouged by a drone prop?  These things happen.

A culture of illegal drone operation is flourishing on Australian farms and cattle stations and if this continues unabated:

  • It will be very surprising if CASA does not reinstate the ‘no drone licence, no drone flight’ rules for farm owners and employees.
  • Flying BVLOS and directly over people’s heads greatly increases the risk of a catastrophic accident.

Many on farms have the attitude, ‘it’s just over our land, it won’t matter, they won’t know.’ But every time somebody flies a drone in a way that contravenes CASA’s rules they’re directly helping to foster a culture of unsafe practices; that could:

  • cause a serious accident
  • result in stringent licencing for farm drones
  • boost the damaging stereotype of rural Australians as a pack of uneducated rednecks

It is vital to obtain firsthand, current information on exactly what CASA’s laws are:

  • Either straight from CASA’s website or from a registered drone licencing professional – who has an obligation to be up-to-date with current laws.
  • NOT from secondhand sources who may only know enough information to be dangerous or who may have outdated information.
  • As the saying goes ‘ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law’. IE the ostrich technique does not absolve anyone of responsibility and does not avoid fines and other punishment.

Aviation laws are complex. It is necessary to read documents in full. There are contradictory & potentially confusing elements to consider, such as:

  • whether drones are flown recreationally or for commercial purposes (which means anything to do with business – however simple, and/or for reward ([which includes in-kind recompense, not just flying for cash])
  • the weight of the drone (potential for damage to property or people)
  • how many motors & batteries it has (redundancy)
  • whether the drone pilot owns the land underneath it or not (& if not, who does. Eg local, state & federal governments have applied laws to some land they own)
  • what is being done with the drone (eg spraying chemicals on crops)
  • the class of airspace & proximity to aerodromes, helicopter landing sites, take-off & landing corridors (licencing may be required; and potentially, special permission as well)
  • etc.

Unless the attitude and behaviour of many drone operators on farms and stations changes, everyone living on farms and cattle stations is at risk of having to spend thousands of dollars studying for a drone licence in order to legally own and fly a drone over their land.  Please encourage all drone owners that you know to find out the laws that apply to their circumstances and abide by them.

Should I get a drone licence now?

As mentioned above, obtaining a drone licence is expensive and time consuming. And it’s not easy for anyone unused to studying and exams (this includes me). The drone pilot and operator licencing process is rigorous.

But there are benefits in having a drone pilot licence:

  • Safer drone pilots and better role models (for children and others in agriculture).
  • Able to obtain/obtain cheaper public liability insurance.
  • It’s a professional standard qualification and thus virtually essential for anyone using a drone for commercial purposes; and for anyone involved in running workshops or providing certified teaching.
  • Obtaining a licence now guards against potentially more expensive, time consuming or difficult licencing requirements that may be introduced in future. Globally, drone laws and licencing details are constantly being updated.
  • The training association with obtaining a licence will make you a much better pilot.

The detailed pros and cons of drone licencing can be discussed in workshops so it becomes clear what specifically suits your situation; and you know how to get your drone licence efficiently and cost effectively should you decide to go down this path.  (Many parents are seeking information on behalf of their children, also.)

I cover the most essential aspects of drone operation, as relevant to rural residents, in workshops I run. This includes the most practical/relevant topics discussed in CASA licence training, which is useful for day-to-day operation but also helps build confidence prior to undertaking CASA licence training. (Most drone licencing training occurs in capital cities and costs $4-$5,000 all up.)

Here’s more information on drone workshops (including other topics).  The above information may save you money. If you found it useful please consider purchasing outback coffee-table style books (with many aerial photographs) by way of a thank-you, and to support the ongoing rural advocacy work I do.

'Biggest Mobs - Longest Shadows' book of outback cattle station photographs

‘Biggest Mobs – Longest Shadows’ book of outback cattle station photographs

Please note: All the above information is correct at the time of writing (18th November 2017 & last updated 16 December 2018) but drone specs and federal laws governing drone operation change frequently.  CASA’s website should be checked for current licencing and operating laws before flying or purchasing a drone.  If you are on my mailing list as a book buyer, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any specific drone-related queries.

Qualifications & experience:

  • Chief Pilot/Operators Certificate for RPAS (ReOC), Remote pilot licence (RePL), Aviation Radio Operator’s Certificate (AROC), and certified night UAV training.
  • 2018, named as one of ten ‘Women to Watch in UAS (drones)’ globally, by Chicago-based Women and Drones.
  • Many drone flight hours in a wide range of agricultural environments, in all but two of Australia’s states and territories.
  • 30 years of professional aerial photography experience.
  • I have undergone drone-related education/training at various locations between Victoria and Far North Queensland; as well as in the US (New York City, Las Vegas & Raleigh – North Carolina).
  • I’ve run drone workshops & masterclasses in various locations across Eastern Australia and in September 2018, was the first Australian to present a session at America’s largest commercial drone conference, InterDrone.  (Avalon Airshow & the Commercial UAV Expo in Amsterdam, next.)
  • The drone workshops I run are holistic; a large amount of very useful related information is included, so participants save money, fly more safely and put their drones to better use.  Drone workshops can include very valuable aerial photography advice as well. Contact me if you’d like more details.
  • By April 2018 there were just 15 fully licenced (RePL + ReOC) female drone pilots in Australia; and I’m one of them. There’s more women shearing sheep than licenced drone pilots. We need more role models, for the sake of healthy diversity.
  • Fiona Lake, catch-landing a P4P drone – which must be done with care. Catch-landing safely is one of the technical skills that is covered in hands-on drone training sessions.

If you would like more information on the unique drone training I offer, please let me know via the contact form.

Upcoming events can also be found on the Business Operating Hours blog post.

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