23/01/2016 10:00 AM AEDT | Updated 28/09/2016 9:56 PM AEST

Future Drones Will Require More Laws

Tim Robberts via Getty Images
Camera-Drone hovering in sky.

Sophisticated advances in consumer drone technology which could see the machines being used like flying selfie sticks will likely require changes to the law in the long term, observers say.

Currently drone pilots in Australia need a licence if they are using the flying robots for commercial purposes, with height restrictions of up to 120 metres for non-commercial drones weighing less than two kilograms, while flight can only take place in unpopulated areas.

But significant advancements in consumer drone technology -- such as the Lily and Ehang's flying "car" -- suggest a future where consumers have a more personal relationship with drones, making them a more familiar sight in our airspace.

Drone Laws in Australia: Are you flying your UAV / RPA legally

Futurist Ross Dawson told the Huffington Post Australia drones have an uncertain future in Australia, partly because of outdated legislation and vast geographical disparity.

As an example, he sees drones being used to deliver items to sparsely populated rural farmsteads as not creating any major issues.

“That’s a very different scenario to metropolitan areas, where if you start to enable drone delivery in urban areas there are all sorts of ways that may have some risk factors,” he said.

“We can imagine that, imagine that being done safely, but there are the realities of the risks of having so many drones, and there’s how regulators respond to the risks.

"Every developed country in the world is looking at drone legislation."

Canada's air regulator recently announced it will be updating its drone legislation, while US drone owners now have to register it with the Federal Aviation Administration before flying it, or risk civil and criminal penalties.

So how do you handle the autonomous selfie drone, which promises to follow you in a close orbit and measure your run or snap the occasional selfie, or deliver packages across the city?

"We do need more regulation," said Dawson.

"The law needs to keep up with the world, and the world is changing and these are things we never envisaged when the current laws were established."

The head of the University of Sydney's Design Lab, Associated Professor Martin Tomitsch, said the future of drones will not be exclusive to deliveries.

"It's making a lot of headlines at the moment, because of Amazon's work... but from my own work I see many other applications for drones," he said.

At the design lab, Tomitsch and his students create apps for controlling drones, as well as providing concepts for their use.

One such drone is the NERI surf lifesaver -- a drone that can deliver life saving buoys to swimmers in times of need.

But Tomitsch sees a social aspect to drones -- personified in the Lily -- which can be used to monitor your run and take selfies.

"It's being used to explore how it can be used as a running companion," he said.

"But it's not just the data and data collection aspect, but the social aspect: if it's in front of you it can motivate you to run, it can pace you."

His students have created apps for interacting with "hiking drones", which will accompany outdoorsy owners on the gruelling walks, and could conceivably alert emergency services if you experience a health issue.

But despite the legal and technical challenges proposed by free flying personal drones (most batteries only last upwards of half an hour), Tomitsch said it may take as long as 20 years before technology allows everyone to have their own flying selfie stick.

"If you go skiing or snow boarding you can only go on one run before you have to charge it again, and it's a 2-hour charge time" he said.

"If you compare it to the world's first mobile phone, which came out in 1983, weighed a kilogram, had a talktime of 30 minutes, a charge time of 10 hours and it cost $US4000.

"It will probably take five to 10 years for us to see more of those consumer drones."

Drones in Australia: Do's and Don't's:

  • You must only operate this aircraft in your line-of-sight in daylight. Don’t let it get too far away from you.
  • You must not fly closer than 30 metres to vehicles, boats, buildings or people
  • If you are in controlled airspace, which covers most Australian cities, you must not fly higher than 400 feet (120 metres)
  • You should not fly within 5.5 km of an airfield.
  • It’s illegal to fly for money or economic reward unless you have an unmanned operator’s certificate issued by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).