Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), alternatively known as drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) are rapidly gaining in popularity, both for commercial and recreational use. They are being used a range of ways — in scientific research, engineering, film and TV production, photography, agriculture, power line inspection, and search and rescue work. In future, we may even see UAS being used for goods delivery.

The Government is committed to having a thriving and successful UAS sector in this country. UAS use in business is an innovative direction the Government is keen to support, as it will bring the commercialisation of new products and services, creating more jobs for New Zealanders.

A government agency, Callaghan Innovation(external link), is supporting the development of this technology in New Zealand.

All New Zealand universities are now using UAS as part of their research efforts. Massey University is offering UAS pilot training. An area of restricted airspace in New Zealand has been set aside specifically for the testing of UAS by the University of Canterbury’s Spatial Engineering Research Centre(external link).

Current UAS safety rules

This technology, however, does come with safety risks.

For information on the current safety rules that must be followed in New Zealand, see the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)(external link) web page and the Airways Airshare(external link) UAS hub. The latter includes maps that indicate restricted air space where UAS may not be operated without approval.

UAS weighing more than 25kg are considered pilotless aircraft and must gain authorisation from CAA.

If you have specific concerns about a possible rule breach related to the safety of an UAS operation, please contact the Civil Aviation Authority(external link).

Operating UAS in breach of civil aviation rules could lead to a fine, a written warning, or prosecution by the CAA.

New UAS safety rules

New safety rules will come into force in New Zealand for UAS on 1 August 2015.

These new rules are relatively flexible, allowing for the growth of fast developing technology — while retaining safety as a key priority.

The rules are risk-based, which means they consider the safety risks of an operation, rather than the purpose of the operation (eg recreation or commercial).

Unlike some countries, such as the United States, our rules do not distinguish between commercial and recreational operations. In Australia and the United States, commercial unmanned aircraft operations are illegal, unless the aviation regulator grants permission.

Many commercial operations will be possible without an application to the CAA for certification (under Rule Part 101) – as long as the operator abides by simple rules such as flying only during the day, below 120 metres, more than 4km from an aerodrome.

Operators can apply to NZ Civil Aviation Authority for certification to operate UAS outside these rules if they have a plan to mitigate safety risks.

Operators wishing to fly a UAS beyond the line of sight need to be certificated to do so by the CAA. Operators need to satisfy the CAA they have a plan in place to effectively manage the safety risks of having their drone go beyond their line of sight.

For information on the new safety rules, see the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)(external link) web page and the Airways Airshare(external link) UAS hub.

More comprehensive rules may be developed in future once the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)(external link) sets standards for this technology. New Zealand is represented on the ICAO RPAS Panel to help develop these standards and related guidance.

Read the Minister of Transport’s media release on the new civil aviation rules for UAS here.(external link)

Read questions and answers on the new civil aviation rules for UAS here.(external link)

Read information on Testing and developing UAS in New Zealand.


The Office of the Privacy Commissioner(external link) has commented on how relevant New Zealand privacy law applies to the use of UAS(external link).

The Office considers there are sufficient laws already in place in New Zealand to protect people’s privacy with regard to UAS. The Office has stated while UAS are a new and emerging technology, the threat they pose to privacy is consistent with the use of any camera (including mobile phones or automated CCTV systems). The Offices’ CCTV guidelines(external link) apply to UAS fitted with cameras and provides guidance on how to comply with the Privacy Act. There are also other laws in New Zealand relevant to using UAS to film or record. For example, it is against the law to make covert intimate recordings of people without their consent or knowledge, and to publish them.