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Aviation Law in Australia: An Overview

Australia’s aviation industry is a vital component of its infrastructure, connecting its diverse regions and contributing significantly to its economic prosperity.

As such, it is imperative that the laws and regulations governing aviation are robust, adaptable and in line with international standards.

In this overview of aviation law in Australia, we will explore key aspects such as safety regulations, airspace management and the role of government agencies.

We will also explore recent developments in aviation technology, including how the law applies to spacecraft and remotely piloted aircraft – namely, drones.

What is aviation law?

Aviation law, also known as aviation and aerospace law, is a specialised branch of law that encompasses a set of rules, regulations and principles governing various aspects of aviation and aerospace activities.

Bartsch (1996) defines it as follows: “Aviation law is that branch of law that comprises rules and practices which have been created, modified or developed that apply to aviation activities.”

It is a complex and multifaceted area of law that addresses a wide range of issues related to the operation, safety and regulation of aircraft, airports and airport operators, airlines, as well as the broader aviation industry.

Some of the most important domestic Australian aviation laws of the Commonwealth include the Civil Aviation Act 1988, the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations and the Air Navigation Act 1920.

Aviation and the Law

Aviation is a potentially hazardous activity and therefore requires a proactive safety-based approach and culture. As such, the law is primarily designed to ensure the safety and efficiency of aviation. Avlaw advocates that “the aviation industry is what it is today not in spite of, but rather because of, the law that regulates it.”

The law establishes rigorous safety regulations governing aircraft design, maintenance, operation and air traffic control. These are essential to prevent accidents, protect passengers and crew, and maintain public confidence in air travel.

Further, aviation is inherently global, with aircraft crossing international borders regularly. Laws and international agreements, such as the Chicago Convention, facilitate standardisation and coordination of rules and procedures to ensure seamless and safe international air travel.

Who are the aviation agencies in Australia?

The regulation of aviation in Australia is overseen by several Commonwealth government agencies. Some of the most important departments include:

•  Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). CASA is the primary regulatory authority responsible for civil aviation safety in Australia.

• Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts. This government department oversees aviation policy and provides strategic direction for the aviation industry in Australia.

• Airservices Australia: Airservices Australia is responsible for managing air traffic control and airspace management services across the Australian airspace.

•  Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB): The ATSB is an independent government agency tasked with aviation accident investigation, as well as accidents and incidents in other modes of transportation.

Why Does CASA Need to Regulate Space-based Activities?

CASA is Australia’s aviation regulator. A space operator may enter into Australian air space and, when it does, CASA needs to ensure that it does so safely. Space activities are also regulated by the Australian Space Agency.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is a specialised agency of the United Nations (UN) that plays a central role in the regulation and coordination of international civil aviation.

Established in 1944, ICAO is headquartered in Montreal, Canada, and serves as the global authority responsible for developing and implementing international standards and regulations for aviation safety, security, efficiency and environmental protection.

Important to know

Australia is a party to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, or the Chicago Convention as it is more commonly referred, which established ICAO. The legal mechanism through which this convention is enacted domestically (that is, ratified) is the Air Navigation Act of 1920.

This international agreement set forth essential principles and frameworks to ensure the safe and organised growth of global civil aviation. It aimed to establish international air transport services with a focus on equal opportunity and efficient, financially sound operations.

Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS)

The Standards and Recommended Practices (or “SARPs”) of ICAO are a set of global aviation standards and guidelines that serve as the foundation for international civil aviation regulations and practices.

SARPs cover a wide range of aspects within civil aviation, including aircraft design, operations, air traffic management, aviation safety, security, environmental protection and more.

SARPs are published by ICAO in the form of Annexes, however they do not have legally binding force.

Does CASA regulate all space activities?

No. CASA shares the responsibility to regulate space activities with other agencies – primarily, the Australian Space Agency.

The Australian Space Agency commenced operations on 1 July 2018.

Important to know

The Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (Cth) governs the system for regulating space activities in Australia.

Certain activities need to be approved under that Act, including launching and returning a space object to and from Australia, as well as launching a high-power rocket from Australia (see below).

From 30 June 2020, the Space (Launches and Returns) (High Power Rocket) Rules 2019 commenced. These rules outline additional criteria for the granting of an “Australian high power rocket permit” (explained further below).

What type of rocket do I have?

In Australia, there are different legal definitions of space activities and rockets. Your type of rocket, and your intentions with the rocket, will determine what legal requirements apply to their usage and operation.

For example, if you have a high power rocket, then you will be required to apply for an Australian high power rocket permit if you intend to launch a rocket, from Australia, that does not exceed an altitude of 100km above mean sea level and meets the criteria of a ‘high power rocket’ (explained below).

However, if you want your rocket to reach beyond an altitude of 100km above mean sea level you will require an Australian launch permit, not an Australian high power rocket permit.

Important to know

The Australian Space Agency regulates space and high-power rocket activities.

They have the power to take enforcement action under the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 to persons who do not comply with the rules.

Civil penalties apply for certain offences, including but not limited to:

  • not having the relevant licence or permit; or
  • breaching a condition of a licence of permit.

What regulations apply to my high-power rocket?

The regulations that apply to high power rockets include the:

  • Space (Launches and Returns) (General) Rules 2019
  • Space (Launches and Returns) (High Power Rocket) Rules 2019
  • Space (Launches and Returns) (Insurance) Rules 2019

Are there any prohibitions when operating my high-power rocket?

Yes. You need an Australian High Power Rocket Permit if you wish to launch a high power rocket that does not reach outer space (i.e. does not exceed an altitude of 100km above mean sea level). It is an offence to conduct space activities without the required permit.

Requirements under the Space (Launches And Returns) Act 2018 (Aus)

The Launches and Returns Act 2018 came into effect on 1 September 2019.

There are various lives you are able to apply for.


Licence When required
Launch Facility Licence If you intend to operate a launch facility in Australia.

This is any fixed or mobile facility that is specifically designed or constructed to be capable of launching a space object.

Australian Launch Permit If you intend to conduct a space launch from Australia.

A ‘space object’ includes any object or part that is intended to reach ‘outer space’ (i.e. an altitude higher than 100 kilometres above sea level).

Australian High Power Rocket Permit If you intend to launch a rocket that does not reach outer space (i.e. not higher than 100 kilometres above sea level).

A “high power rocket” is any rocket:

  • that is propelled by a motor or motors with a combined total impulse greater than 889,600 Newton seconds, or
  • that is propelled by a motor or motors with a combined total impulse greater than 40,960 Newton seconds and is fitted with a system or systems that allow active control of its trajectory.
Overseas Payload Permit If you are an Australian citizen, resident or entity who intends to conduct a space launch from outside Australia.
Return Authorisation If you intend to return a space object to Australia, or return an object to a place outside Australia.
Authorisation Certificate If you require approval to conduct an activity that would otherwise be unlawful under the Act.

Insurance requirements

There are insurance requirements under the Launches and Returns Act 2018 and the Space (Launches and Returns) (Insurance) Rules 2019.

The minimum insurance you need for a launch authorised by an Australian high power rocket permit is $100 million.

Where can I operate it?

Where you operate your rocket will depend on the type of rocket, and your intention behind the rocket.

For example, if you operate a small model rocket (a rocket less than 500gram Gross Lift Off Weight – GLOW), you can fly them in many locations.

You cannot operate them in a movement area or runway of an aerodrome, or the approach or departure path of an aerodrome without approval.

You can read CASA’s guide on model rockets here.

We suggest getting in touch with CASA or the Australian Space Agency if you are unsure where you are allowed to operate your rocket.

Important to know

Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (CASR) regulates unmanned aeronautical activities, including the operation of unmanned rockets.

We suggest that you familiarise yourself with these regulations prior to operating your rocket.

Recommended sites for CASR high power rockets

If you are a member of a rocketry club, then we suggest you get in touch with them to help you find an approved launch site for high power rockets.

Generally, CASA has advised that a suitable site for launching rockets includes:

  • large areas such as a deserted regions;
  • an area without air traffic and well away from aerodromes; and
  • an area far away from densely populated areas (such as cities like Sydney CBD).

Minimum area for launch sites

We suggest that all rocket users contact CASA to understand the applicable minimum area for launch sites.

The minimum area you are allowed to launch from will usually depend on the impulse of your rocket.

Important to know

If you operate a high power rocket, then you should have high power rocket certification from an Approved Aviation Administration Organisation.

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

Generally speaking, you’ll need to obtain approval from CASA if you want to operate a high power rocket and you intend to:

  • Launch above 400 feet above ground level and/or within 3 nautical miles of an aerodrome
  • Launching at night
  • Launch into a cloud
  • Launch in conditions other than visual meteorological conditions
  • Lunch into controlled airspace

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

There is no general requirement to formally register your high power rocket.

You may require insurance if your high power rocket is subject to the terms of the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018.

Remotely piloted aircraft and autonomous vehicles

In recent years, aviation has witnessed a considerable transformation, marked by the emergence of Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Autonomous Vehicles.

However, in Australia, the use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), commonly known as drones, is subject to regulation by CASA.

CASA plays a pivotal role in ensuring the safe and responsible operation of these technologies within Australian airspace.

How do I operate an autonomous vehicle in Australia?

Autonomous vehicles generally refer to vehicles that don’t have any intervention from human beings during flight.

CASA has identified RPAs as their main regulatory focus with respect to unmanned aircraft.

Important to know

There is little regulation of fully autonomous vehicles by CASA. However, you should always contact CASA at the first instance to ensure you are allowed to operate them.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft/drones

Drones share airspace with manned aircraft, and collisions or near-misses can have catastrophic consequences. Regulations help mitigate these risks by setting clear guidelines for safe drone operations, such as altitude restrictions, no-fly zones, and requirements for avoiding manned aircraft.

What operating conditions am I subject to?

If you are operating an RPA commercially, you may need a remotely piloted aircraft operator’s certificate (ReOC) or a Remote Pilot’s Licence (RePL).

A ReOC allows your business to conduct RPA operations that aren’t available to others. However, you do not need one if your RPA is in a micro or excluded category.

You will need a RePL if you want to be a remote pilot for a business or individual who has a ReOC, or fly a drone that weighs over 25 kilograms but less than 150 kilograms over your own land. You won’t need a RePL in all circumstances.

Important to know

If you fly a drone or RPA as part of your employment or for your business, you will generally need to register your drone with CASA.

RPAs under 2kg

If your RPA weighs under 2kg, you won’t need a ReOC or a RePL.

Use case: Operating an RPA under 2kg

James is an employee of an aerospace company and wants to pilot a 1.3kg drone. His drone may be in the “excluded category”.

RPAs over 2kg

If you operate an RPA over 2kg, you will need a RePL and be employed by an entity with a ReOC. You may also need permission to fly from CASA.

Registration and insurance for RPAs

You will generally need to register your drone with CASA if you’re flying a drone as part of your job or business.

There are no specific rules that require a drone owner or operator to hold public liability insurance. However, you may exposed to liability if something is damaged and so you should consider obtaining appropriate insurance.

What to do next: rocketry

Owning and launching a rocket in Australia involves a complex process due to the safety and regulatory considerations associated with rocketry.

You should always thoroughly research the legal requirements and regulations governing rocket launches in Australia.

Contact your local rocketry club

Ideally, the first step you should take is to contact your local rocketry club if you are not 100% sure about your rocket’s operation.

Liaise with CASA on the details of your launch

Don’t launch a rocket without clearing with the regulator first. CASA needs details of your rocket and approve the site you plan to launch from.

Comply with the requirements under the Space (Launches And Returns) Act 2018

Get across whether your rocket is subject to the terms of the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018. If it is, make sure you strictly comply.

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

CASA has published a high power rocket safety code. It is located at Appendix E of the Advisory Circular on Unmanned Aircraft and Rockets. Ensure that you follow this code to ensure you comply with the relevant safety regulations.

Concerned or unsure about the law applicable to your vehicle?

Obtain professional advice from an aviation of space lawyer.

Seek legal advice

If you are unsure or only think you are sure about what you are allowed to do when operating a rocket in Australia, we strongly recommend receiving professional legal advice.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the CASR’s consistent with the new Act?

There are some inconsistencies between the definition of a “high power rocket” in the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 and the definition in the CASR.

In CASR, a high power rocket appears to be any rocket that is not a “model rocket” (see CASR 101.425).

However, under the new Act, a high power rocket will not travel beyond a distance of 100km above mean sea level. It will carry a total impulse above 889,600 Newton seconds or it fitted with an active control system (see above table).

How do I go about launching from an aircraft?

If you wish to launch a rocket from an aircraft, then you should contact CASA for guidance.

Aircraft flying in Australia must be registered, and launching rockets into orbit may be regulated by the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018.

What role does CASA have following the creation of the ASA?

Despite the creation of the Australian Space Agency, CASA still has a role regulating a number of space activities because space is inevitably connected to airspace.

CASA will still be responsible for regulating unmanned vehicles using airspace, including the use of rockets.

Do I need a licence for my remotely piloted aircraft?

You will need a licence to operate your RPA in some circumstances, such as a  remotely piloted aircraft operator’s certificate (ReOC) or a Remote Pilot’s Licence (RePL).

What is the purpose of aviation regulations?

Aviation regulations serve various purposes. However, the foremost purpose of aviation regulations is to enhance safety in all aspects of aviation operations. This includes ensuring the safety of passengers, flight crews, and the general public on the ground.

Which country’s laws apply in a plane?

Generally, the laws of the aircraft’s registration apply to acts committed onboard an aircraft.

Interested in learning more about aviation law?

If you have a keen interest in the intricate world of aviation law, there are some excellent resources. Two highly recommended books in this field are “Aviation Law in Australia” and “International Aviation Law,” both authored by Avlaw Founding Director Professor Ronald Bartsch.

aviation law australia

Avlaw also has a specialised aviation expert witness service tailored to the needs of law firms. Our team of experts possesses extensive knowledge and experience in aviation law, making them invaluable assets when it comes to assisting with legal cases related to aviation matters.

Whether you require expert testimony, guidance, or consultation in aviation-related legal proceedings, our expert witness service is here to support law firms in achieving successful outcomes for their clients.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for expert assistance in navigating the complex terrain of aviation law.