New Zealand is incredibly beautiful, with lots of gorgeous landscapes all around. However, if you are planning to capture all this beauty from the air using a drone, there is quite a few things you should know. When it comes to drones, New Zealand has some of the most stringent laws and regulations I’ve seen in any country. I have spent countless hours prior to my trip trying to figure out all the details and applying for all the necessary permissions. Yep, depending on where you plan to fly, you would most likely need to apply for a permission. So, to save you some headache, in this blog post I summarise everything I have learned about drones in New Zealand, including how to apply for and receive Department of Conservation permit. I also offer a few tips that will help make the trip as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
Basic Drone Rules
Let’s start with the basics. These are actually innocent enough. Always have visual sight of the aircraft, don’t go higher than 120 meters, no flying over people, don’t use the drone at night, no flying within 4 km radius of the airport. All rather common things the drone owners now have come to expect from almost anywhere in the world, so I won’t go into too much detail about those. You can check the full list over at UAV Coach. These guys do a great job aggregating the drone laws for different countries and I recommend them as a starting point for all you drone related research.
Another great resource you should definitely check out is Airshare, which goes into a bit more detail regarding the regulations and also features an incredibly useful map of no-fly zones in New Zealand. Make sure to first check this map when planning any drone activities during the trip. They also offer help getting authorization for operate in controlled airspace, although I have not personally tested if this really works.
If you read the regulations carefully, you will no doubt have noticed that there are couple things in there that aren’t quite simple. That’s where things start to become interesting. Consider this one for example: “Under the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations of 1992, when operating at an altitude of less than 600 meters above sea level, no aircraft shall be closer than 150 meters horizontally from a point directly above any marine mammal”. I actually found this rule during my research and emailed UAV Coach to add it to the list.
While I understand the general intention behind this rule, the way it is currently worded essentially means that you might be violating the law without even knowing it whenever you are flying above water. As any drone pilot would agree, it would be extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to spot an animal 150 meters away. Especially if watching the aircraft, as the law tells you to. Arguably the only thing you can do is try and stay away from any animals you notice and hope no one measures the actual distance.
Another interesting one is about obtaining a consent of a property owner before flying over said property. Again, the way it’s worded makes flying anywhere over ground potentially illegal, unless you have a permit from the land owner. I wouldn’t, however, worry too much about that one, because arguably the more important regulation is the one that Airshare doesn’t list and UAV Coach only mentions briefly. One that dictates that you need a permit to operate a drone over any public conservation land, even for personal or recreational reasons.
The reason this rule is important and one about private property isn’t, is that Department of Conservation (DOC) of New Zealand manages most of the land you will potentially want to fly above. This covers not only national parks, but also anything that is considered to be a natural or historic heritage, including pretty much all of the popular destinations, hikes, walks and other places of natural beauty in New Zealand. If you check this DOC map of all the conservation areas (make sure to tick the corresponding checkbox on the left), you will see that roughly a third of the South Island territory is under DOC management. In other words, almost anywhere you go in New Zealand, you will probably find yourself on Department of Conservation land, meaning you require a permit to use a drone.
Getting DOC Drone Permit
The good news is that getting a permit is completely possible. The bad news is that the process is extremely tedious, time-consuming and plain frustrating if you don’t know what you’re doing. The remainder of this article explains the procedure step by step to hopefully save you a bit of time and frustration. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’ll probably still require some effort from you and there’s very little that can be done about it. So if somebody from DOC is reading this, please try and streamline the process to make it less punishing for the responsible drone owners who try to follow the rules.
Before applying for a permit, the first thing you should do is finalize the itinerary, as in the application you are required to list all the locations you intend to film in. Take your time with this step, you want to be as specific as possible with the travel plan. Applying for a permit costs money and the application fee will depend on the amount of areas you apply for (more on that below), so you shouldn’t blindly include everything that comes to mind. Likewise, if you forget anything and have to file an additional application later on, you will end up paying extra.
Once the itinerary is fleshed out, head over to the DOC map and check if any of the places you would like to film in are a part of a conservation area. Chances are, quite a few will be. Don’t rush to fill in the application just yet though. DOC won’t simply approve any location you ask a permit for. Some conservation areas outright ban the drones, while others have seasonal or time of day restrictions. To have your application approved, you need to be aware of those restrictions.
This is where things become quite frustrating, as currently there is no easy way of knowing which places might be rejected. The only help Department of Conservation offers is this page, that list the zones it recommends applying for. In my experience, most, if not all, of the more popular destination will not be listed on that page. If a specific area is not recommended, does it mean it will be rejected? Probably, but the only way to know for sure – and I’m afraid there is no way around it – is to get in touch with DOC directly. To do so, you may either call (when traveling from abroad, make sure to do it over Skype, otherwise the telephone bill would look real ugly) or email them. Luckily, they are usually pretty prompt at replying.
Based on my own experience, anything not listed on the recommended page will likely not get approved. Above is a response I got when enquiring about some of the more popular hikes around Wanaka. As you can see I was advised to steer clear of these. It is still worth to reach out to DOC though, as they might be able to provide alternative locations or fill you in on the most up to date information. If there are any additional restrictions in the particular area (for example drones are only allowed before 10am or after 3pm in Eglinton Valley en route to Milford Sound), they will also let you know.
Once you know what’s likely to be approved, it is time to do the paperwork. You will have to complete two forms – 1b and 4c. Form 1b is relatively straightforward, just fill in a bunch of personal information and tick option C (aircraft activities) in the activity applied for section.
The second form is a little trickier. Here you provide a description of the activity and fill in two tables detailing the areas you intend to fly above. This is where all the previous effort comes in handy. It also helps to be a bit creative and show DOC that you have thought about the impact of your actions and ways to mitigate them. Here’s what I came up with, which was sufficient to get it approved.
When the forms are ready and signed (form 1b), just email them to DOC. The review may take up to 7 days, but I got a response much faster. In case application requires some adjustments (for instance, some places might no longer be accepted for permits) it is usually possible to settle it with a reviewing ranger directly without filling in the forms again. When everything is discussed and agreed upon, the ranger will inform you of their decision (if everything was done correctly, it is going to be a positive one) and send you the contract to sign. The contracts are quite beefy, one I got from Marlborough region was 21 pages. Yuck! Annoying as it is, it’s still a good idea to read the agreement carefully.
You will also have to pay the application fee, which is 50 NZD plus tax. You should be aware though that this is per region. There are 16 regions in total in New Zealand (9 on the North and 7 on the South Island), so if you apply for locations in multiple regions, it may add up to a hefty fee. Keep that in mind when filling in the application. I recommend selecting regions with most areas of interest and perhaps discarding those where you’re only interested in one particular place. That’s up to you and your purse though. Just remember that there is no need to submit separate applications for different regions, simply include everything in the 4c form and Department of Conservation will manage it from there.
There are a few options to pay the fee. DOC likes to steer you towards doing it in their local office when you’re in the area. However, as I had a pretty packed itinerary, I didn’t fancy locating and visiting their office. In that case they may either send you an invoice or have you tell them your credit card details over the phone. This varies depending on the region, but the rangers will inform you when sending the contract.
Final Thoughts and Tips
Whether or not you apply for a permission after reading this guide is your choice. On one hand, I’m always for playing by the rules when it comes to drones. I also welcome an attempt on DOC’s part to establish a clear procedure that allows to apply for a permit. In my opinion it is a step in the right direction, compared for instance to US national parks that simply banned drones for good. On the other hand, as it stands, the process is unnecessarily complicated, convoluted and in dire need of improvement. I guess I should also mention that during my two weeks in New Zealand I was never approached by a ranger or required to show my permit. What you take from it is up to you, but no matter what you decide, here are some final tips.
If you choose to go for a permit, I strongly suggest contacting DOC early on. All the rangers that I had communicated with have been friendly, responsive and genuinely willing to help out. Getting in touch from the start can save you hours of browsing online trying to figure out what you can and cannot apply for.
Don’t expect to be able to use the drone everywhere you want. You can pretty much rule out all the popular hikes, walks and tourist destinations right away, these are usually drone-free zones and you won’t be able to get a permission. You will likely find yourself limited to more remote and off-the-beaten-path locations. Don’t be discouraged by it, simply accept this for a fact and move on.
Try looking for non-DOC territories to film in. This may save you all the hassle, while still allowing to use the drone. There are actually quite a few nice locations that are not managed by Department of Conservation. For example, Wharariki beach and Motukiekie beach are both awesome and do not require a permit.
While national parks are usually a no-drone zone, there are certain areas you can apply for. For example I got a permit for a couple of places along the Milford Sound road. While not ideal, it’s better than nothing. DOC has a special page that helps somewhat but again – checking directly with a ranger will likely be faster.
And of course, no matter what you do and where you fly, always do it responsibly, execute common sense and try to not annoy other people. If you simply do as much, you should probably be just fine, even without a permit.
That’s all I have to say on the matter. I know it’s been a long read, but hopefully it has also been useful. I suggest checking out this article for some additional info but if you still have any questions, please reach out – I’ll try my best to respond. If you found this article helpful, please take a minute to check my gear list over here. I don’t put ads anywhere on this blog and the affiliate links you will find there are the best way to support me and keep me going at absolutely no cost to you. Happy flying in New Zealand!