Drones - taking flight or about to be grounded?

Ryan Boyd
Drones - taking flight or about to be grounded?

They are one of the hottest and most-discussed pieces of hardware in the world, even though they go by a number of names – remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), multi-rotors, or the more common term, drones.

In the United States DHL and Amazon are looking to use the drone to make deliveries, Google and Facebook are eyeing them up as a potential way to offer online access to poor and remote areas of the world, and one of the top technology websites has a weekly column dedicated to the latest in news and developments on drones.

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And their popularity is catching on here in a similar way. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has used them to assess earthquake damage, the Police have photographed crime scenes with drones and farmers are experimenting with them for stock management on farms.

The world over, they are becoming the tool of the day for eye popping videos and photos.

Jason Blair and Dave Kwant from Drone Solutions on New Zealand’s West Coast were early adopters and are now busy making movies, taking photos, and creating 3D imaging using multi-rotors.

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Jason controls a CineStar 8 on a flight at Brunner Mine Site.

“We wanted our cameras in the air shooting stills and video,” Jason says. “Two years ago we bought a little one, a six rotor, to test the waters and see what was possible.

“We took it pretty slow and learnt as much as we could, and as we got more confident and put ourselves out there we realised there was a whole other world of industrial and technical work potential.”

Now working with far more advanced models, Jason says they’re getting an increasing number of diverse enquiries.

“Things as random as using it in forestry for health and safety monitoring, and checking out mines and quarries for the regional council,” Jason said.

“They get imagery you can’t get any other way. You can fly really close to things and fly the same path repeatedly with GPS automation, which means you can have 4D imaging (3D over time) to see changes. It’s incredibly powerful.”

Sales on the up, but for how long?

With more affordable models becoming available, amateur drone enthusiasts are popping up all over the country.

Luey Lau is the owner of multi-rotors retailer RC Link Ltd in Auckland and a trained NZ commercial pilot. He started selling machines almost three years ago with demand quite limited but over the last year says that business has taken off as ready-to-fly models have become available.

The ready-to-fly models mean no previous experience is required which Lau says causes some concerns.

“Now the average Joe can buy one and fly it in GPS mode, meaning it will maintain position if no input is given. This is really helpful to the beginner, however, the beginner has no grasp of remote control flying and is in no position to control the aircraft if GPS signal is severed,” Luey explains.

He warns that if common sense does not prevail regulators could step in. That is happening in the United States where the Federal Aviation Authority is trying to exercise some control over the use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). In June, The National Park Service announced a temporary ban on their use by the public until it can figure out a permanent RPAS policy, and even the White House has gotten involved.

In New Zealand, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is currently in the process of developing policy on RPAS. In the meantime, the CAA encourages RPAS operators to continue to engage with the Authority about their operations and to be aware of the relevant Civil Aviation Rules.

“Innovation and development will continue for these multi-rotors and sales will continue to grow until this hobby is either governed or banned completely,” Luey said.

“The biggest advice I would give to a beginner is please respect the multi-rotor. It is not a toy. It can cause havoc if mistreated so please buy it from someone that can teach you properly.”

A casual flyer’s viewpoint

Andrew Collins doesn’t make any money from his drone; he just enjoys flying and filming things like paddle boarders competing.

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Andrew flying his DJI Phantom 2

“I was recovering from a second round of back surgery and lamenting missing out on outdoor sports I enjoy, such as wakeboarding and snowboarding,” he explained. “Given my keen interest in videography, this seemed like a logical way to stay involved and create some memorable moments.”

With his clever DJI Phantom 2, it didn’t take too long before he was filming some great scenes.

“Getting the basics is pretty straight forward. If you want to stop, let the controls go and it will rapidly decelerate and hover back at the point you let go using GPS, compass and altimeter sensors.

“The more advanced functions are trickier, but with practice provide a real cinematic feel to the footage.”

Andrew commends the CAA for the way they have approached the technology so far and thinks the rules in place are a good start.

The CAA are thinking carefully about how to manage this great technology from both the commercial and hobbyist angles, and while the specific rules for the operation of drones are shaping up, the relevant parts of the current Civil Aviation Rules must be followed. There are some general guidelines:

  • Don't fly over 400 feet
  • Don't fly at night
  • Don't fly within 4 kilometers of an airfield
  • Don't operate in a way that may cause a hazard, e.g. near people or property
  • Understand the relevant Civil Aviation Rules – go to the CAA website
  • Fly within line of sight
  • Before you fly, check for airspace restrictions.

“Like anything else, personal responsibility is key,” Andrew says. “Protect people, property, privacy and animals and you'll be a good pilot.”

Along with reading and following the instruction manual religiously and never being in a rush when calibrating before a flight, he has one more important piece of advice to help ensure the future of the hobby:

“Don’t be an idiot.”

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