Skip to content

Summary

  • National airspace and outer space are inextricably linked and operators in Australia seeking to conduct space activities can only do so through Australian airspace.
  • The regulation of that airspace is the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) through the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (CASR).
  • Always check with the regulator for their latest official direction, guidance and information.

Contents of this article

What is aviation law

Aviation law is the law and rules relating to air travel, air safety and the general use of airspace. In Australia, air navigation and air safety is overseen and regulated by two agencies, Airservices Australia and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

CASA is the primary authority for licensing pilots, registering aircraft and regulating the use of airspace, including the use by those conducting space activities. Space activities that will be most heavily regulated by CASA include:

  • Commercial space travel
  • Use of hybrid aerospace vehicles that may be characterised as unmanned aircraft and remotely piloted aircraft
  • Operation of a high power rocket

Why does CASA need to regulate space-based activities?

CASA’s primary mission is to ensure the safe use and management of Australian airspace. Whilst a space-based operator may only be operating in Australian airspace for a short period, CASA must ensure its use is harmonious and safe with respect to other users at that time, for example, commercial air carriers.

CASA is also responsible for ensuring that Australia complies with its international obligations of air safety and licensing. Many of the regulations imposed on domestic air users in Australia are reflections of international air safety rules.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is a UN specialised agency and the foremost international authority on civil aviation. The ICAO was formed to administer the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (‘Chicago Convention‘), a treaty with 193 member states including Australia.

Article 37 of the Chicago Convention allows the ICAO Council to create Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) in relation to civil aviation rules, these are created in the form of ‘annexes’ to the Chicago Convention.

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

The Annexes to the Chicago Convention are observed and administered domestically by various Australian agencies, including CASA. Click here for the full list of these agencies.

Standards and Recommended Practices

SARPs are not binding on member states such as Australia. However, under Article 38 of the Chicago Convention, any member state with alternative rules or regulations to the SARPs must file a ‘difference’ with the ICAO and they are binding in respect of aviation activities in international airspace. Furthermore, compliance with SARPs by an air carrier of one nation facilitates the operation of that air carrier in another nation. Generally, there is a strong impetus to comply with SARPs as far as possible.

The intersection of national and international airspace necessitates the existence of uniform and harmonious civil aviation rules such as the SARPs. Member states rely on these SARPs to ensure uniform implementation of services including Air Traffic Management.


Does CASA regulate all space activities?

The Australian Space Agency is responsible for promoting Australian space industry and administering Australian space regulations.

CASA does not regulate space activities specifically, rather it regulates the airspace through which those activities are conducted. If a space activity is to be conducted in Australian airspace, CASA will need to be satisfied that it will not jeopardise the safety of other users of that airspace.

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

CASA provides a comprehensive breakdown of the rules, regulations and permissions required when operating a rocket through its Advisory Circular on Unmanned Aircraft and Rocket.

For access to the Advisory Circular click here.

What type of rocket do I have?

CASA designates any rocket that is not a ‘model rocket’ as a ‘high power rocket’. This means that a rocket will be considered a high power rocket if it contains the following characteristics:

  • It has a weight greater than 1.5kg; and
  • It has a total impulse greater than 320N; or
  • It is a ‘commercial rocket’ including:
      • Sounding rockets;
      • Space launchers;
      • Sub-orbital rockets; and
      • Rockets capable of exceeding an altitude of 60,000ft.

This definition means that the vast majority of commercial rocket activity will involve ‘high power rockets’ and will be subject to the stricter conditions imposed by CASA under Part 101.H of the CASR.

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

The definition of ‘high power rocket’ under the CASR (CASR high power rocket) is different to the definition under the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (AUS) and its Rules.

Under the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (AUS), a high power rocket will not travel beyond a distance of 100km above mean sea level.

What regulations apply to my high power rocket?

In addition to the conditions set out under Part 101.H of the CASR, you will need to receive any relevant permits and approvals from the Australian Space Agency prior to launching your high power rocket.

Depending on the type of rocket, payload and location of your launch, you may require the following permits and licenses:

  • Launch facility license – required for operating at a launch facility in Australia, including mobile facilities such as aircraft.
  • Australian launch permit – a pre-condition for launching space objects in Australia.
  • Australian high power rocket permit – a pre-condition for launching a rocket that does not go beyond a distance of 100km above mean sea level.
  • Overseas payload permit – a pre-condition for Australian nationals seeking to launch a space object from a launch facility external to Australia.

For more information on the laws applicable to launch click here.

Where can I operate it?

A CASR high power rocket may only be operated in an area designated and approved by CASA. Under the Advisory Circular on Unmanned Aircraft and Rockets, CASA recommends contacting your local rocketry club for sites which have previously received high power rocket authorisation.

CASA has strict guidelines regarding appropriate sites for the launch of CASR rockets, including recommendations on suitable types of area.

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

CASA or Airservices Australia must publish the details of any area approved for the operation of rockets in a NOTAM (Notice-to-Airmen) or on an aeronautical chart. Such approval may be subject to conditions on the operator which must also be published.

If your local rocketry club is not able to assist you in finding a previously approved launch site for high power rockets, CASA advises that a suitable site should be:

  • a large area such as a dry lakebed or deserted region;
  • clear of air traffic or aerodromes; and
  • clear of populated areas, such as cities.

CASA designates a minimum area allowable for the launch of high power rockets dependent on the total impulse of the rocket. As these requirements predate the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (AUS), users should contact CASA to ensure their site meets the designated requirements.

Minimum site dimensions for a CASR high power rocket

 

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

Operators of high power rockets are required to have high power rocket certification through an Approved Aviation Administration Organisation.

CASA does not specify which organisations these are but they have noted that certifications from foreign providers such as the National Association of Rocketry, the Canadian Association of Rocketry or Tripoli Rocketry Association would be suitable.

What are the operating conditions for a CASR high power rocket?

In general, and unless in a previously approved area, approval will have to be sought from CASA or Airservices Australia when operating a high power rocket in the following circumstances:

  • Launches beyond a distance of 400 feet above ground level and/or within 3 nautical miles of an aerodrome;
  • Launching at night, into a cloud or in conditions other than visual meteorological conditions; and
  • Launching into controlled airspace (including an aerodrome).

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

Details of the CASR high power rocket(s) must be given to CASA at least one working day prior to the intended day of launch.

The information must be given in the form set out in sub-regulation 101.445(2) of the CASR.

Are there any prohibitions when operating my high power rocket?

CASA restricts certain conduct during the operation. These restrictions may require more active engagement in the launch of the high power rocket by an operator, they include:

  • Launching into restricted or prohibited airspace, except with approval from the authority controlling the area;
  • Dropping or discharging anything from the high power rocket that may be a hazard to an aircraft; and
  • Operating the high power rocket in any way that may be hazardous to aircraft, another person or property.

Do I need to register or insure my high power rocket?

CASA does not require you to formally register you high power rocket beyond the information required prior to a launch.

Whilst CASA does not require insurance for your high power rocket, you may be required to get insurance if your high power rocket is subject to the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (AUS).

Separately, you may be insured by your local rocketry club’s cover If you choose to launch with them and subject to their policy.

SEEK LEGAL ADVICE IF:

  • You are unsure of what permits and licenses you are required to hold prior to the launch of your high power rocket; and/or
  • You are unsure what conditions apply to your high power rocket under the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations.

Getting legal advice

Remotely piloted aircraft and autonomous vehicles

Users seeking to conduct space activities in Australia may want to use remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or autonomous vehicles as a part of their launching system. These are classifications of ‘unmanned aircraft’, and CASA is the primary authority in charge of regulating both types of vehicles.

How do I operate an autonomous vehicle in Australia?

Autonomous vehicles are vehicles which have no human intervention at any stage during their flight. CASA has identified RPAs as their primary regulatory focus with respect to unmanned aircraft, as such comprehensive regulations on autonomous vehicles are not currently within their scope of reform.

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

At present, CASA has little to no regulation regarding fully autonomous vehicles. However, approval will still be considered on a case-by-case basis, subject to a submission of the safety of the vehicle by the applicant.

Potential operators should contact CASA at rpas@casa.gov.au as early as possible for more information.

Remotely piloted aircraft/Drones

If you are operating a multi-stage launch system that includes a remotely piloted aircraft component, you will likely be subject to CASA’s regulations on RPAs. RPAs or ‘drones’ are subject to operating conditions both recreationally and commercially.

What operating conditions am I subject to?

If you are operating an RPA commercially, for a purpose other than fun and recreation, you may need a Remote Operator’s Certificate (ReOC) or a Remote Pilot’s License (RePL). The types of conditions that apply are as follows:

  • RPAs over 2kg – both a ReOC and a RePL is required and subject to General Operating Conditions (GOCs).
  • RPAs under 2kg – part of the ‘excluded’ category and subject to Standard Operating Conditions (SOCs).

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

Individuals or organisations that seek to operate an RPA commercially will need an Aviation Reference Number (ARN) as a form of identification for CASA.

For more information on getting a ReOC or a RePL, click here.

If your RPA is under 2kg in weight, you will not need a ReOC or a RePL.
However, you will be required to operate the RPA under these Standard Operating Conditions:

  • by visual line of sight (VLOS) only – close enough to see, maintain orientation and achieve accurate flight and tracking;
  • no higher than 400ft (120m) above ground level; and
  • during daytime only – effectively, not before sunrise or after sunset

The RPA may not be operated:

  • any closer than 30m from people not associated with the flight;
  • in a prohibited area or restricted area;
  • over populous areas;
  • within 3 nautical miles (or 5.5km) of the movement area of a controlled aerodrome – one with an operating control tower; and
  • in the area of a public safety operation without the approval of a person in charge of the operation.

Only 1 RPA may be flown per pilot at any one time. If you seek to operate outside of these SOCs, a ReOC and a RePL will be required.

An individual operating an RPA over 2kg will need to have a RePL and be employed by an entity (for example, a university) with a ReOC. Once obtained, you may need permission to fly from CASA.

Unless otherwise approved, operators will need to comply with the following General Operating Conditions:

The RPA is operated:

  • by visual line of sight (VLOS) only – close enough to see, maintain orientation and achieve accurate flight and tracking; and
  • no higher than 400 ft/120 m above ground level.

The RPA is not operated:

  • any closer than 30 m from people not associated with the flight;
  • any closer than 15 m from people who have consented to the RPA operating close to them;
  • autonomously;
  • within 3 nautical miles (5.5 km) of a controlled aerodrome;
  • in a prohibited area;
  • at night, unless in accordance with CASA approval;
  • in or out of cloud;
  • over populous areas; and
  • over the movement area or within the approach and departure paths of an aerodrome without approval from CASA.

Only 1 RPA may be flown per pilot at any one time.

USE CASE: Operating an RPA under 2kg

Robert is an employee of ANGELS Aerospace and seeks to pilot a new 1.5kg drone that will eventually be operated alongside other drones as an experiment for ‘swarm intelligence’ in low-Earth orbit. Robert wants to fly the drone within 25 metres of his colleagues to showcase its manoeuvrability and safety features.

  • As the RPA Robert wants to operate is under 2kg, it may be in the ‘excluded category’ and subject to the Standard Operating Conditions.
  • As Robert seeks to operate outside of the Standard Operating Conditions by flying within 25 metres of people, he will need a Remote Pilot’s License (RePL).
  • Similarly, either Robert or ANGELS Aerospace as his employer will need to hold a Remote Operator’s Certificate (ReOC).
  • With an RePL and a ReOC, Robert will need to comply with the General Operating Conditions, unless otherwise approved by CASA.

If Robert changes his mind and wants to operate within the SoCs, he will need to inform CASA prior to his commercial flight. Robert may only ever operate one RPA at a time.

Registration and insurance for RPAs

CASA is developing a registration and accreditation scheme for those wishing to operate RPAs recreationally and domestically, however, this is not yet in effect.

The scheme will likely restrict the age of those who may operate an RPA, as well as including an accreditation fee and a compulsory education course. For more information on the scheme, click here.

Whilst CASA does not require insurance for RPAs, it is highly recommended that you get cover for any damage or loss to third parties.

SEEK LEGAL ADVICE IF:

  • You are unsure whether your unmanned aircraft falls within current drone regulations; and/or
  • You wish to engage in a consultation with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to revise the current regulations in relation to unmanned aircraft.

Getting legal advice

Frequently Asked Questions

The definition of high power rocket under the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (AUS) and its Rules are inconsistent with the definition under the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (CASR) (AUS).

  • CASR – Under the CASR, any rocket that is not a model rocket, including sounding rockets, suborbital rockets and space launchers are considered high power rockets.
  • Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (AUS) and its regulations – Under the act and its regulations, a high power rocket will not travel beyond a distance of 100km above mean sea level and it will either carry a total impulse above 889,600 Newton seconds or it will be fitted with an active control system.

CASA is in charge of regulating the aircraft and the airspace through which it operates. If you are seeking to use an aircraft (not an unmanned aircraft) in assisting a space activity, it would be prudent to contact CASA for further guidance.

  • Registration – All aircraft (excluding unmanned aircraft) need to be on the civil aircraft register if they seek to fly in Australia. Foreign operators must either remove their aircraft from their foreign register or prove that it was never previously registered.
  • Launch – Launching suborbital objects or space objects from an aircraft may be subject to the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (AUS), including the requirement for a launch facility license. For more information on launch, click here.

Whilst the Australian Space Agency was formed to facilitate and regulate the Australian space industry, CASA still has a significant role in the operation of various space activities.

In general, CASA seeks to maintain safety in Australia’s civil airspace by regulating and restricting the conditions under which unmanned ’vehicles’ using airspace, including rockets, can be operated.

If your RPA is under 2kg in weight, you will not need a Remote Pilot’s License (RePL) or a Remote Operator’s Certificate (ReOC) and will be subject to the Standard Operating Conditions.

You will be required to have a RePL and a ReOC (or be employed by someone who has a ReOC) if you:

  • Operate an RPA or drone over 2kg in weight; or
  • Operate an RPA or drone under 2kg in weight outside of the Standard Operating Conditions.

What to do next?

Rocketry

1. Contact your local rocketry club

If you are unsure about the operation of your rocket, including area approvals and certification, contact your local rocketry club.

CASA provides the details for a number of these rocketry associations in Appendix G of their Advisory Circular on Unmanned Aircraft and Rockets.

2. Liaise with CASA on the details of your launch

CASA will require details of the rocket you intend to launch and will need to approve the site you plan to launch from.

CASA will also require the operator to be a certified high power rocket operator and will generally accept certifications from the National Association of Rocketry, the Canadian Association of Rocketry, or the Tripoli Rocketry Association.

3. Comply with the requirements under the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018

Your rocket may also be subject to Australian space law and regulations.

  • For more information on the requirements for launch, click here.
  • For information about your liability and insurance for launch, click here.

4. Follow the High Power Rocket Safety Code during the operation of your high power rocket

Whilst not exhaustive, CASA provides an official high power rocket safety code in Appendix E of the Advisory Circular on Unmanned Aircraft and Rockets.

Operators should follow this code to ensure the safe use of Australian airspace, as well as ensuring they are compliant with the relevant requirements under the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations.

5. Concerned or unsure about the law applicable to your vehicle?

Seek the advice of a lawyer who specialises in aviation law and/or space law.

LINK SOURCES

Visit the International Civil Aviation Organisation website for more information on the organisation and international civil aviation rules:
https://www.icao.int/Pages/default.aspx

Visit the Airservices Australia website for more information on airspace management:
http://www.airservicesaustralia.com/services/

Visit the Civil Aviation Safety Authority website for more information on aviation law:
https://www.casa.gov.au/