Robotic pilotless aircraft should spur privacy law review

September 5th, 2012
With the federal government currently in the process of responding to the Australian Law Reform Commission report, a Queensland University of Technology law expert says it is timely to review the privacy laws in relation to the future use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA).

Faculty of Law Professor Des Butler said individuals were currently protected under a patchwork of laws but that many people were unaware of their rights in relation to privacy.

"People's rights to privacy are currently protected by a piecemeal collection of diverse state and federal legislation and the common law," he said.

"In Queensland, people's rights to privacy are protected under Section 227 A (1) of the Criminal Code 1899 (Qld) which makes it illegal to take pictures or vision of someone that offends their privacy e.g. 'upskirting' or the secret filming of people in change rooms or swimming pools.

"This also prohibits a person from observing or visually recording another person 'in circumstances where a reasonable adult would expect to be afforded privacy' without the other person's consent."

Professor Butler said an individual's right to privacy on their own property was also protected under common law with respect to trespass.

"An individual's ownership of their land isn't bound by their fence line," he said.

"Ownership of a property extends into the sky as well.

"So someone flying over or sending a robotic aircraft over someone else's yard without their approval could, in fact, be trespassing.

Professor Butler said there was an allowance for usage of the sky under law to enable aircraft to fly at their normal heights.

QUT Faculty of Law Professor Bill Lane said the use of certain surveillance technology (telephone taps, listening devices, tracking and optical devices) to gather information without consent was regulated by federal and state legislation which, generally speaking, made it an offence to do so unless by authorised law enforcement/regulatory officials.

"As well as this, any collection and recording of personal information would need to comply with information privacy law," he said.

Professor Lane said the laws surrounding privacy were very complex, and the use of remotely piloted aircraft in the future was something that governments, Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the general public should consider now, so that when the technology and regulations were finalised, appropriate safeguards were in place so that the aircraft could be fully appreciated for the beneficial uses to which they would be put.

He said beneficial uses would include surveillance of bushfires, cyclone damage, floods and other natural disasters, coastlines and powerlines amongst other things.

QUT is a global leader in unmanned systems research and is currently leading a project involving Australian aerospace experts which aims to overcome barriers to routinely flying remotely-piloted aircraft in civil airspace.

As a part of this study, experts will investigate the social issues influencing stakeholder perception of the risks associated with the operation of RPA in a variety of civil roles.

"We are currently developing the technology to enable the aircraft to detect and avoid other aircraft and also to land safely in emergencies," said QUT Professor Duncan Campbell who heads the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA).

He said it was envisaged that several of these barriers would be addressed by the end of 2014.

Provided by Queensland University of Technology

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