A Canberra company is the first local operation to get approval to fly unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones” commercially.
The mother-and-son operation has approval through the Civil Aviation Safety Authority after an involved process that included undertaking flight training with the manufacturer in Canada.
CASA confirmed there were only 39 licences issued for unmanned aircraft systems in Australia including to White Knight Unmanned Aerial Systems Pty Ltd from the ACT.
Chief controller and managing director of the company, Brett White, said it would be operating a Canadian-made DraganFlyX4P, which was 0.8 metres in diameter, weighed less than 2.5kg and was powered by a lithium polymer battery.
The aircraft carried a high-definition camera that was capable of both video and photography.
Mr White said he didn’t like the term “drones”.
“I think drone implies it’s autonomous. Ours isn’t autonomous, we actually fly it ourselves,” he said.
He said the aircraft was flown by remote control and had to remain within the line of sight of the operator – about 300m – and could not be flown within 30m of people.
Mr White, 27, is in partnership in the business with his mother Kerry who is also the company’s safety observer.
He said there were many potential uses for the unmanned aircraft such as aerial photography for real estate sales and rural uses such as taking inventories of machinery and buildings.
Mr White said he hoped to branch out to do other data collection such as air pollution testing and working with bushfire authorities to do smoke sampling. He could also see applications for search and rescue. His outfit had been among a number of companies contacted by the family of missing Canadian bushwalker Prabhdeep Srawn to use drones in the Kosciuszko National Park to help locate him.
However, Mr White said from his perspective the altitude and wind did not make the aircraft conducive to the search, although he couldn’t speak for other companies involved.
Mr White said the unmanned aircraft were “really cost-effective and a lot safer than manned aircraft”.
“A lot of industries that haven’t been able to afford manned aircraft are starting to use them,” he said.
“The obvious ones are the rural-real estate stuff where there’s an obvious demand there but it’s just not cost-effective to hire a pilot and a manned aircraft. A lot of researchers and conservationists are starting to pick up on it for things like detecting weeds and spraying weeds.”
A former Lyneham High and Hawker College student, Mr White also works in IT.
He said he was conscious of privacy considerations.
“We have it in the forefront of our mind when we’re operating not to do anything stupid which might jeopardise people’s privacy. We always get permission from landowners to enter their property and they are contracting us to take photos of their house or their property.”
Mr White said he was not interested in doing any work that involved spying on people.
“Oh God, no. Definitely not. That is completely deplorable to me, I think it’s disgusting,” he said.
Mr White said he had gone through a rigorous process to have both himself and his company licensed.
This included doing a pilot’s course with a private outfit and then a theoretical exam, interview and test flight with CASA.
Mr White also did flight training for a week with the manufacturer in Canada. He had to write an operations manual that had to be approved by CASA. He also had a police check and had taken out public liability insurance.
Mr White said he suspected there were unmanned aerial vehicles operating illegally in the ACT. He did not begrudge the hoops he had to go through to get his licence but instead welcomed them to ensure the safety of the operators and public.
“I think the regulations are great,” he said. “We’re actually leading the world in terms of our regulations.”