House debates

Monday, 14 July 2014


Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee; Report

10:13 am

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, I present the committee's report entitled Eyes in the sky: inquiry into drones and the regulation of air safety and privacy, together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be made a parliamentary paper.

by leave—Australia's remotely piloted aircraft or 'drone' industry is growing rapidly. Increasing numbers of consumers are buying and using drones, and they already play a role in a range of Australian industries, from journalism, cinematography, policing and emergency services, to agriculture, mining and scientific research. They come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, from large fixed-wing craft that look and behave much like aeroplanes right down to tiny multi-rotor helicopters weighing less than a kilogram. Drones are able to do jobs that were previously impossible, and they can reduce the cost—and the risk—of many dull, dirty or dangerous jobs.

However, like any new technology, drones can be misused. They can pose a safety risk to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground, and the cameras and sensors they carry can be used to invade someone's privacy. The challenge we face is to realise the potential of this innovative technology while protecting against its risks.

This report has surveyed the emerging issues around drone use and has examined the adequacy of Australia's existing regulatory framework. At a series of hearings and roundtables the committee heard from air safety regulators about the importance of allowing drone technology to mature so that the risk to people and property is minimised; and from privacy experts about the complexities and gaps in Australia's privacy laws which make it difficult to protect against privacy invasive drone use.

The committee heard that drones are already being used in unsafe and potentially invasive ways. There have been a number of near misses and safety incidents arising from illegal drone use in the last year, and Australian farmers have reported that drones are being used by activist groups to take footage of their property without permission. The recommendations in this report are intended to serve as a starting point for an ongoing process of reform and adjustment to Australia's privacy and air safety regimes. The committee has recommended that the government simplify what is a complex web of privacy and surveillance laws so that members of the public and drone operators alike can more easily understand the law. At the same time, the committee has recommended that the government consider introducing legislation to protect Australians from intrusions into their private seclusion and to provide a more reliable remedy for those whose privacy has been breached. The committee notes that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority is currently reviewing the air safety regulations relating to drones in response to rapid developments in drone technology and a surge in the number of drone users.

In light of its proposed changes, the committee takes the view that CASA's proposals strike an appropriate balance between minimising safety risks on the one hand and facilitating the development of Australia's drone industry on the other. Drones are an emerging technology that will bring substantial benefits to a wide range of Australian industries. Drones will help many Australian businesses lower costs, increase productivity and reduce risk. However, the privacy and safety issues arising from expanding use of drones will require sustained attention in years to come to protect Australians from malicious drone use while giving this dynamic new industry the room it needs to grow.

I would like to thank again the deputy chair and member for Newcastle and all members of the committee for their work in this inquiry, not to mention the secretariat. As an aside, can I mention that Peter Pullen from the secretariat has assisted greatly in developing the draft and the final work that has come before this chamber. I believe that that is the first that he has done for the parliament. Congratulations to him—it is a very fine report.

10:17 am

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak also on the Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee's first report to this 44th Parliament entitled Eyes in the sky: inquiry into drones and the regulation of the safety and privacy. Firstly, as deputy chair of the committee, I wish to commend the chair, the member for Dawson, and committee members for their work throughout this inquiry. I want to especially acknowledge the secretariat's contribution. I also want to say thank you to the all-important witnesses that provided evidence and it took time to demonstrate the capability of drone technology.

The remote piloted aircraft—RPA—or drone industry in Australia and other parts of the world is certainly booming. Private and commercial use of RPAs has proliferated as technology advances, costs reduce and usability improves. Relevant Australian legislation around the use of RPAs has not kept pace with the industry, and, as this inquiry has found, proactive measures need to be taken to protect commercial and recreational users and members of the public. The inquiry found that there are many current and potential uses of drone technology that could bring benefit to Australia, including their use by emergency services.

With this expanded application and use, however, come a number of safety and privacy concerns. A number of safety risks concerning drones were raised by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority—chiefly, build quality of drones, including electrical componentry; and safe integration of drones into Australian airspace. CASA's Director of Aviation Safety, Mr John McCormick, told the committee that there is a risk of interference with other vehicles, interference with other aircraft, and possibly of crashing in public areas. This circumstance was evidenced earlier this year in my electorate of Newcastle where a rescue helicopter was forced to take evasive action to avoid colliding with an unidentified drone.

While control of the space is already legislated, the committee recommends that CASA broaden future consultation processes to include industry and recreational users from a non-aviation background. Future consultations should identify and seek comment from peak bodies in the industry where RPA use is likely to expand, such as real estate, photography, media and agriculture, amongst others.

RPAs also pose a potentially serious threat to Australian's privacy. Through application, RPAs can intrude on the privacy of individuals or businesses either deliberately through surveillance activities or inadvertently in the course of activities like aerial photography, traffic monitoring or search and rescue. And, as device capability improves and units become cheaper, government agencies, companies and individuals will be provided with a very cost-effective mechanism to observe and collect information on Australians, potentially without knowledge or consent. The Privacy Act does offer some substantial protections in certain circumstances, but there are a number of situations where it may not protect Australians against the invasive use of drones. A lack of uniform laws across state boundaries was highlighted as a particular issue of concern, as was the method for individuals to redress potential privacy breaches. These issues are not unique to the use of RPAs. However, as capability improves and drone use increases, further tests of the privacy regime are likely. In his address to the committee the privacy commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, said:

With such a new technology the question comes down to how its use is going to be regulated. What are the ways in which you can be regulated so that we can still achieve the benefits that technology can bring at the same time as making sure that people have a right of recourse or remedy if they believe the privacy has been invaded by misuse of these technologies?

The committee recommends a number of measures to improve privacy laws in Australia. Of particular importance, the committee recommends that in considering the time and extent of privacy protection to be afforded, the government consider giving effect to the Australian Law Reform Commission's proposal for the creation of a tort of serious invasion of privacy or include alternate measures to achieve similar outcomes with respect to invasive technologies, including remotely piloted aircraft.

The committee puts forward six very sensible recommendations to address concerns regarding air safety and privacy around the use of RPAs in Australia. I commend the committee's report to the House and look forward to the government's response.

Photo of Mrs Bronwyn BishopMrs Bronwyn Bishop (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for statements on this report has expired. Does the member for Dawson wish to move a motion in connection with the report to enable it to be debated on a later occasion?

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, I do. I move:

That the House take note of the report.

Photo of Mrs Bronwyn BishopMrs Bronwyn Bishop (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

In accordance with standing order 39, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.