Drones in parks policy

Drones are a valuable tool for managing national parks but they can also cause problems. If you want to fly a drone in a park you should first check what approvals are needed.

Drone flying above coastline, Tomaree National ParkThe New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), part of the Office of Environment and Heritage, uses drones in national parks for many purposes, including:

  • search and rescue activities
  • controlling weeds and pest animals
  • monitoring beach erosion
  • photographing heritage assets.

But flying private drones in parks can annoy visitors and disturb animals. Drones can also dangerously interfere with fighting bushfires and with other activities for managing parks. For these reasons their use in parks is restricted. 

The using drones in national parks factsheet (PDF 204KB) outlines the policy requirements that must be met by people who use drones in parks.

What is a drone?

A drone is a remotely controlled aircraft without a human pilot aboard.

Other terms for a drone are:

  • unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)
  • remotely piloted aircraft.

Are drones a type of aircraft?

Yes. Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regards drones as aircraft. Drones are therefore covered by the Commonwealth Civil Aviation Act 1988 and the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (CASR).

If you fly a drone you must ensure that it is airworthy, and that it is flown safely and in accordance with the law (CASR Part 101 (PDF 339KB).

Policy

When can I fly a drone in a park?

1. An NPWS area manager may grant consent for the recreational use of a drone if:

  • it will not annoy or cause risk to visitors, or invade their privacy
  • it will not be a nuisance or cause risk to wildlife
  • it will not interfere with park-management operations.

You can fly a drone only in the area covered by the consent.

2. Park managers can inform visitors that consent is required to use drones by:

  • putting signs at a park entrance or inside the park
  • giving visitors a written notice
  • speaking to visitors.

3. If you have permission to fly a drone, before you start flying you should check the alerts page of the NPWS visitor website. This page tells you about park closures or fires and floods affecting parks.

A park may be closed or access to it restricted if the fire-danger rating is very high or above.

4. If you have permission to fly a drone, you should follow the guidelines from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority for recreational drone use. These say that drones must:

  • always be in sight of the operator
  • not fly over populous areas
  • stay at least 30 metres from other people, vehicles, boats and buildings
  • stay at least 5.5 kilometres from an airfield.

Yes. Drones are considered to be aircraft for aviation purposes. Under the NPWS Filming and Photography Policy consent for using aircraft for filming in a park is dealt with under the Filming Approval Act 2004.

You must also obtain any necessary approvals under the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1988.

6. The use of drones in Thredbo and in the Perisher Resorts in Kosciuszko National Park is restricted because each resort has a helicopter landing site surrounded by a 5.5-kilometre exclusion zone. The exclusion zones cover the resorts’ buildings, ski lifts, ski runs and other facilities.

7. If you want to use a drone at a ski resort for either recreation or commercial purposes you must get approval from the resort operator.

8. Controlled airspace in Australia is airspace actively monitored by air-traffic controllers. All aircraft operations above 120 metres (400 feet) in controlled airspace (including with drones) require approval from the relevant air-traffic control authority.

To enter controlled airspace, anyone operating an aircraft (including a drone) must first gain a clearance from either Airservices Australia (for civilian airports), or the Department of Defence (for military facilities and RAAF airports).

9. Drones should not be flown without approval of the air-traffic control authority within 5.5 kilometres of an airport, airfield or a registered helicopter landing site identified by CASA.

In NSW many urban parks and parts of other popular parks are within 5.5 kilometres of an airport, airfield or registered helicopter landing site. These parks include:

  • Blue Mountains National Park (part)
  • Coffs Coast Regional Park
  • Kamay Botany Bay National Park
  • Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park (part)
  • Lane Cove National Park
  • Sydney Harbour National Park
  • Tomaree National Park
  • Yuraygir National Park (part).

Yes. If a plan of management for a park states that drones are not to be used, NPWS must erect signs in the park or issue directions to visitors.

No. Drones can be a risk to the safe operation of firefighting aircraft during bushfires or hazard-reduction burns.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority warns of the risks of using drones near bushfires (PDF 496KB). The main risks are:

  • a drone colliding with a helicopter's tail rotor or an aeroplane's propeller
  • firefighting aircraft being grounded to avoid colliding with a drone.

No. The National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009 sets out the minimum approach distances for all aircraft, including drones. A drone must stay:

  • more than 300 metres above a marine mammal
  • more than 300 metres horizontally from a marine mammal (or 80 metres if the animal is a seal pup or sea-lion pup).

If you go closer than this you can be given an on-the-spot fine of $300, or for more serious offences, fined up to $110,000.

The Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH)'s Chief Controller for drones is responsible for supervising OEH’s use of drones in parks and for preparing manuals related to drones that are required by CASA regulations. The Chief Controller is located in NPWS’s Fire and Incident Management Section.

15. Yes. All commercial or professional users of drones over 2 kilograms in parks need to hold a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] Operator's Certificate (UOC). The Civil Aviation Safety Authority requires a 'commercial user' of a drone to hold a UOC under CASR Part 101.

Commercial users of drones less than 2 kilograms now need to follow the updated CASA guidelines for drones under 2kg.

16. NPWS's Fire and Incident Management Section maintains a Non-Fire Approved Operator List for Aviation Operations. A commercial or professional UAV user must be approved by NPWS and added to that list before being engaged by NPWS.

Policy adopted 24 May 2017

Scope and application

This policy applies to all lands acquired or reserved under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act) except for lands reserved under Part 4A of the Act (unless the Board of Management for those lands has adopted the policy). However, the policy still provides guidance for staff in their dealings with Boards of Management.

Objectives

This policy aims to:

  • provide clear guidelines for the recreational and commercial use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) in parks
  • provide clear guidelines for NPWS's use of drones in parks
  • balance the commercial and recreational use of drones in parks with NPWS's responsibilities to protect wildlife and to provide opportunities for the public appreciation and enjoyment of a park's natural and cultural values.

Definitions and abbreviations

Aircraft means

any machine or craft that can derive support in the atmosphere from the reactions of the air, other than the reactions of the air against the earth's surface

(Commonwealth Civil Aviation Act 1988, section 3).

Airservices Australia is the Commonwealth agency responsible for managing air traffic.

CASR Part 101 is the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998, Part 101.

Civil Aviation Safety Authority is the Commonwealth government agency responsible for ensuring aviation safety.

Accountabilities

Paragraph Position accountable
1. Consent for the recreational use of drones in a park Area Manager
6. Approval for commercial filming using a drone Area Manager, Director
9–11. Using drones in controlled airspace or close to helicopter landing sites Airservices Australia (for civilian airports), or the Department of Defence (for military facilities and RAAF airports)
14. OEH's use of drones in parks NPWS's Chief Controller of drones
16. Approval of commercial or professional uses of drones in parks NPWS's Aviation Coordinator