Drones and farms: know your rights

Published: March 2019 | By: Michael Burt

Drones can be operated by anyone from animal liberation protestors to thieves. Here’s what farmers can do about it. 


Farmers are being illegally filmed on their own land without their consent. How can they stop it? Source: Getty Images.

IF a drone flies over my land, can I take it out? That was a recurring question from farmers at a round of rural crime workshops hosted by NSW Police and NSW Farmers last year. In short, the answer is no. 

Farmers were told deliberately interfering with a remotely piloted aircraft by shooting it down, damaging it or confiscating it could result in a police prosecution.

In January, police were called after a man allegedly shot down a drone being used by a real estate agent to film a property on the NSW North Coast. The man was left facing multiple firearms and drugs charges – the police allegedly also found cannabis on the property.

NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Geoff McKechnie advises farmers to contact local police if they are concerned about a drone flying over their land. 

“The rural crime prevention team needs to establish what the owner of the drone is doing, and police are best placed to respond,” he says. 

RELATED: Battling the rural crime wave

“I would also encourage farmers to speak with and have a good relationship with their neighbours. The drone may be theirs and they could unknowingly fly over your land.”

NSW Police also encourages people to film drones to assist with identification, ownership, type of drone and its exact location and distance from people and landmarks. 

“Police are well equipped to investigate these matters,” the Assistant Commissioner says. 

“They are referred on to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority [CASA], but it is only to get a determination and infringement issued.”

For farmers who have adopted drones for farm management, he recommends downloading CASA’s Can I fly there? drone safety app, which details the standard operating conditions for flying drones.
 

Farmers learning how to use drones safely at a NSW Farmers drone course in Tamworth recently. Photo by: Steve Gonsalves.

Drone regulations need to match advancing technology 

Farmers face problems because regulations are not keeping pace with advancing drone technology, according to NSW Farmers’ policy advisor – economics and rural affairs Isabella McDougall. 

“Unmanned drones are an example of a broader, innovative development in new surveillance technologies and their use,” she says.

“This development is challenging the efficacy of existing legal frameworks and raising a range of social and ethical concerns.” 

Last July a NSW parliamentary inquiry into landowner protection from unauthorised filming or surveillance recommended the government review the existing legislative framework. 

In a submission to the inquiry, NSW Farmers highlighted the problems, stating a survey of members had revealed drones accounted for 30% of illegal surveillance incidences on farms.
 

Farmers are frequently dealing with drones, either to run their farm or with illegal surveillance issues. Source: Getty Images.

“Farmers have been victims of unauthorised filming from animal activists,” the submission said. “These incursions have a serious impact on farmers with misleading footage used in social media, resulting in severe emotional distress.” Unauthorised filming and surveillance has also been used to the detriment of farmers, with criminals using technology to understand the items of value and assist in planning a farm raid. 

“It is an offence to record using a drone above a household if this act impedes the enjoyment of others and many of the drone software applications restrict the use in built-up areas, yet there is no differentiation in rural landscapes between open public parkland and private farming enterprise. The legislative framework must be strengthened to provide farmers with greater protection.”

Isabella says NSW Farmers backs the inquiry’s recommendations, which include forming a working group to review the current legislation and identify barriers to enforcement and successful prosecutions.
 
Drones become a tool for rural crime  

NSW Farmers’ Pork Committee chair Ean Pollard, who operates a piggery in the Riverina, says animal activists have no regard for the stress unauthorised filming places on animals and people. 


Piggeries have been heavily targeted by animal activists. Photo by: Matt Beaver. 

“Whether it is through the use of drones or early morning filming raids, their sole goal is to portray farming in a bad light,” he says. “Animal activists came onto our farm at 3am, stirred all the sows up and took footage with them squealing in the dark.” 

Ean responded by releasing a video showing the same area in daylight with unstressed sows.
 
“Farmers are constantly moving forward with improved animal welfare.”

“There are regulatory bodies that govern animal welfare, so why should we be governed by people who are against the use of animals for food and fibre and use unauthorised filming for inaccurate portrayals of farm management?”

Animal activists openly admit to using drones to film private property. Animal Justice Party MP Mark Pearson has spoken about organising drones to film properties including poultry farms and piggeries, both before and after his election to the NSW upper house in 2015. 

Dr Clare McCausland from La Trobe University is researching animal activism and believes activists should have the right to use drones to film farm activities. 

“We know there is strong community interest in farm animal welfare and that drones may be one way for activists to see what actually happens to animals without committing trespass,” she says.

“We also take the privacy concerns of farmers very seriously. Anyone working with drones can and should do their very best to avoid disclosing personal information and to use drones without causing unnecessary suffering to humans and animals.”
 
Have you seen an unknown drone?  

The NSW Police Force Rural Crime Prevention team has the following advice:

  • Do not deliberately damage the drone

  • Film the drone to help with identification

  • Talk to your neighbours – it might be theirs

  • Contact local police

Crime Stoppers can also be contacted on 1800 333 000

 
Drone safety rules

  • You must not fly your drone in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, person or property, so follow these rules every time you fly.

  • Only fly during the day and keep your drone within your line of sight. This means being able to see the aircraft with your own eyes (rather than through a device) at all times.

  • Do not fly your drone higher than 120m above the ground.

  • Keep your drone at least 30m from other people.

  • Do not fly your drone over or near an area affecting public safety or where emergency operations are underway (without prior approval). This could include situations such as a car crash, police operations, a fire and associated firefighting efforts, and search and rescue.

  • Only fly one drone at a time.

  • Do not fly over or above people. This could include beaches, parks, events, or sport ovals where there is a game in progress.


  • A drone landing zone at the NSW Farmers drone course. Photo by: Steve Gonsalves. 

  • If your drone weighs more than 100g, you must keep it at least 5.5km away from controlled aerodromes. Flying within 5.5km of a non-controlled aerodrome or helicopter landing site is possible if no manned aircraft are operating to or from the aerodrome. 

  • Do not operate your drone in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, person or property. 

  • Respect personal privacy don’t record or photograph people without their consent – this may breach state laws.

  • Flying commercially or for economic gain is illegal, unless you have your remote pilot licence or are flying a drone that weighs less than 2kg.

  • Other rules may apply depending on where you are flying, enforced by local councils, national parks or state-based government organisations such as environmental agencies.

Source: Civil Aviation Safety Authority (droneflyer.gov.au)

Enjoy this story? Want more in-depth news on farming in NSW? Members of NSW Farmers receive a free glossy monthly magazine called The Farmer, direct to their letterbox, with over 130 pages of exclusive news, views and deep analysis. Plus of course, you get all the benefits of being a member of the largest state farming organisation. Join here