Regulator warns drone operators of collision danger

29 October 2013

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Australia — The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has issued a strongly worded statement warning the operators of small remotely piloted drones which have produced amazing footage of bushfires in the Blue Mountains that they are putting fire fighting operations at risk and should be aware of appropriate regulations.

Over the past week at least one visually stunning video of bushfires in the Blue Mountains, taken at Lithgow, has surfaced on YouTube. Set to sombre music, the video shows a close-up video of the dangerous bushfires being fought by firefighters, as well as devastated bush and suburban areas. The video features footage which would be impossible to obtain through filming from a helicopter, and is set to sombre music. Still photos from the footage are published in this article to give a flavour of the footage, although readers are recommended to view the video themselves.

However, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority late last week published a sattement warning drone operators that they were putting fire operations “at risk”.

“The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has seen video footage of a remotely piloted aircraft being operated on the NSW Lithgow fire ground this week,” the regulator said. “This operation was not approved and appears to be in breach of Civil Aviation Safety Regulations.”

“Flying a remotely piloted aircraft in the same airspace as fire fighting helicopters and aeroplanes creates a real risk of a mid-air collision. If a remotely piloted aircraft hit a fire fighting helicopter tail rotor the helicopter could be badly damaged, with possible loss of control by the pilot. The collision risk means if unapproved remotely piloted aircraft operate on a fire ground fire fighting authorities may be forced to ground their aircraft, putting lives and property at risk.”

CASA’s Director of Aviation Safety, John McCormick, said the unapproved use of remotely piloted aircraft during a bush fire was irresponsible.

“People who have a ‘drone’ must fly according to the Civil Aviation Regulations and they must use their common sense,” McCormick said. “Flying an unapproved remotely piloted aircraft near fire fighting aircraft, fire fighters and fire fighting vehicles is dangerous.”

Operators of both commercial and recreational remotely piloted aircraft are required to comply with Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations. The regulations include provisions requiring remotely piloted aircraft not to operate closer than 30 metres to people unless otherwise approved. It is also an offence to operate a remotely piloted aircraft in controlled or restricted airspace without approval or to operate in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, person or property.

Media are asked not to use vision or photographs taken from unapproved remotely piloted aircraft operations as this can promote dangerous activities. The rules for use of remotely piloted aircraft are available online in CASR Part 101 Unmanned aircraft and rocket operations.

So where should we stand with relation to this kind of footage? Is CASA right? Does the use of drone footage in these kinds of situations pose a risk to fire fighting operations? Should drone operators stay away from such zones? Or does the operation of these drones have some merit that should also be considered?

The first thing that no matter what the regulator thinks, this kind of activity will happen anyway. There is absolutely no doubt that this sort of activity will be ongoing. It’s extremely hard to police, and like most of Australia’s government regulators, CASA will no doubt be extremely slow to move against individual drone operators, even if it is able to determine which particular operator was flying their drone across a certain fire area or other disaster zone. In addition, drones are becoming more and more ubiquitous as the technology becomes cheaper and easier to access.

Then, too, the footage produced by these kinds of drones is simply stunning. Because there are no humans on board, and the machines are very small and maneuvrable, they are able to go places no human-piloted vehicle would be able to — such as directly above a raging fire. If the drones get destroyed in such a blaze, it’s not a huge deal — merely a matter of a few thousand dollars worth of equipment. Mainstream media outlets are already reproducing drone-sourced footage on television, and it’s only a matter of time before mainstream media starts using drones as well.

However, CASA does also have a point. This kind of activity is potentially dangerous, and it’s at least very annoying and distracting for firefighters who are trying to save lives and property.

With this in mind, what I’d like to see is CASA put some kind of formal code of practice around the use of drones. Something a lot more understandable than its current codes. I’ve had a look, and for the average civilian drone operator, they’re impossible to understand. CASA needs to work with drone operators and industry associations if possible to get an easy to understand code of practice around their operation. Perhaps even a cheap licence system akin to a driver’s licence.

Because let us not forget — if CASA does not do this, the drones will come anyway. There’s no stopping this movement now.

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