Eye spy disaster in the city sky

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 05:00 26/01/2014
Fairfax NZ

Attack of the drones?

Drones
PETER MECCHAM/Fairfax NZ
POTENTIAL PITFALLS: Aucklander Mike Packer says rules should be set to limit where, and how high, drones can be used, saying safety and privacy are being compromised.

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It sounds like the plot of a B-grade terrorist movie.

A commercial jet heading into Auckland International Airport passes 500 metres over Manukau's Southern Motorway and into a flock of small, cheap, drones.

It could be keen amateurs looking for amazing GoPro camera shots or it could be more ominous. Either way, one of the $660 computer-programmable and easy-to-fly drones could be sucked into an engine and its unstable batteries explode.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the police cracked down on laser pointers that could blind pilots, but there is nothing to stop anybody buying an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of mixing it up with big jets.

CAA says drone technology has outpaced its regulations and it needs to move with haste to get new rules in place to keep our air space both safe and under some sort of control.

And these UAVs are creating privacy headaches as well.

There are no rules to stop your neighbour, be they next door or 10 houses away, flying over your place with a camera-armed drone and taking high-resolution video of your back-lawn activities.

The problem for regulators is obvious: in electronic shops across the country shelves carry cheap and easy to use "quad" or "hexo" drones (quad drones had four rotors, hexos have six).

A great example is the US-made Blade 350 QX quad, which costs $660 and weighs just 480g. Equipped with the light GoPro camera it can deliver high resolution pictures and videos and, using GPS, can be programmed to fly to up to 21 points before returning home. Anybody can buy and operate one.

Until now drones have been largely confined to the military, infamously associated with US President Barack Obama's war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan where they've killed dozens of civilians along with enemy forces.

Occasionally a military drone will pop up as a "blip" on the radar monitoring New Zealand's air traffic control space, which reaches up to south of Hawaii, and identified as a US$223 million (NZ$268m) Global Hawk UAV moving from the US to Edinburgh in South Australia.

At 18,000 metres it needs clear airspace for a large area below, thanks to its tendency to fall out of the sky.

New Zealand's military involvement with drones is modest; the army's locally made Kahu UAV is a 3.9kg drone that can fly for up to two hours with a range of 25 kilometres.

Aucklander Michael Packer, in his pursuit for better pictures, became a quad expert and says tighter controls are needed to regulate how high they can go and their use in crowded urban areas.

"The Government's response is that until there is an accident we don't need to do anything."

While a Blade drone is mostly plastic, its danger comes from its lithium polymer batteries, which are prone to catching fire and exploding. It would be worse than a bird in a jet engine.

Packer says CAA resists the evidence, seen across Youtube, that quads can fly over 1200 metres. Aircraft landing at Auckland are at 600m above much of South Auckland. An Air New Zealand jet from Sydney into Christchurch is within quad range at West Melton, 18km from the airport.

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Packer circulated a list of concerns last month and an industry group meeting was held in Auckland.

"Every item on this list is a tripper to catastrophe - sooner or later what can happen, will happen."

Nothing has come from the meeting so far.

"I felt very disappointed that we were not able to block the selling of these incredibly high-powered devices available freely at retail throughout New Zealand."

Packer's nightmare is that it is too easy to send quads, accidentally or deliberately, in to the path of landing planes.

"They will also have an amazing HD video to post on the web of their outcome."

Last year Australia's ABC TV showed footage of a drone close to a landing Pacific Blue 737. The pressure wave from the plane knocked it out of the way, but it may not always be that way and John McCormick of the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority's says "the genie is out of the bottle".

Last March an Alitalia jet landing at New York's John F Kennedy Airport encountered a drone, 460 metres over Brooklyn, 6km from JFK. The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force failed to find its owner. In 2012 Australian Federal Police found a drone inside the perimeter fence at Sydney Airport. The owner remains a mystery.

Australian and International Pilots Association vice-president Richard Woodward, an A380 captain, recently told Fairfax Media a hobby drone buzzed around planes and took photos at Perth Airport.

Quads had become a threat to the travelling public, he said. "As they grow in size the collision risk becomes a serious issue further away from the ground and in controlled airspace. If the vehicles are operated in or near the approach path of an airport where they're likely to collide with an aircraft, they provide a similar risk to operations as colliding with a large bird or flock of birds."

A big problem with quads in New Zealand is that they are controlled on the hopelessly jammed 2.4 gigahertz bandwidth that is used for everything from internet wifi to baby monitors. In the digital fog now jamming places like Auckland's Viaduct and Queen Street, quads lose their signals and crash.

Packer says one last year came down on a Viaduct apartment roof and caught fire.

Last October a "Phantom Quadcopter" crashed into a high-rise Manhattan building and fell 100m to the pavement, narrowly missing a man.

Another problem, Parker says, is that there is no screening or preset skill level required to buy and fly a machine.

There is no public information available to warn operators of safe areas to fly and CAA has no record of UAV owners.

CAA told the Star-Times the existing regulations were scrapped as ineffective last month as the technology has "outpaced regulatory development" and added it was a world-wide problem.

They say "incidents and injuries" overseas meant it had to "regulate this activity with haste".

"The use of (UAV) by untrained individuals is a risk that has the potential to disrupt the traditional aviation system," a spokesman said.

The CAA says it is legal "in simple terms" for anybody to buy a drone and use it over private land.

Palmerston North-based professional UAV operator Skycam NZ is alarmed at the regulation vacuum.

"The regulators are the people who should be controlling this," director Rene Redmond says, "but they don't know how to control it."

It's too late for a ban on drones but more information should be provided to buyers.

"There is no information being supplied where they can be operated - it is just a free for all."

And as for personal privacy from intruding drones? Forget it. The Privacy Commission says there is nothing limiting airborne surveillance.

Like the CAA, technology caught up with privacy rules, as David Bain found out at his wedding when media used manned helicopters to photograph him. Other outdoor, but theoretically private, weddings might more easily be spied on with a drone.

But it's not all about war, accidents and invasion of privacy. Science and business are steadily putting drones to practical and peaceful uses.

Skycam, in partnership with the Auckland University of Technology, has a SwampFox drone at Scott Base, Antarctica, to survey a dry lake bed in the Transantarctic Mountains.

They have commercial rights to sell the army's Kahu UAVs. The University of Queensland is using one to study mine land rehabilitation.

"The heart of Kahu is its autopilot," says Redmond. "Quite possibly it is the most versatile autopilot available for miniature unmanned aerial systems in the world."

Southland sheep, beef and cropping farmers Neil and Philippa Gardyne told Fairfax recently they are using a drone over their sheep flocks on 466ha north-west of Gore.

"We're looking at using them as a farm tool," Neil Gardyne says.

They spent $4000 on a 1.8kg Hexocopter with six rotary blades. It flies a pre-determined flight plan, providing live pictures back to a laptop computer.

"We use it to monitor the whole farm for cast sheep or ewes having trouble lambing. We can record where it is and go and attend to the problem."

The $4000 investment could save them $40,000 annually in time and fuel costs.

In Invercargill, surveying company True South is using a $100,000 UAV to map drains.

Briefing notes obtained under an Official Information Act request by blogger David Beatson reveal Police are "starting an evaluation of the use of (UAVs)".

In the meantime they've hired professional photographers with drones to photograph crime scenes.

In Australia civilian drones are being used by Surf Life Saving Australia clubs, real estate agents, environmental researchers, government agencies monitoring illegal fishing, mining companies and media companies.

Recently they have been rolled out in bushfire fighting and a search and rescue mission.

Infamously a criminal gang put a drone into the air to patrol its drug lab and in Brazil contraband is flown over fences to prisoners in UAVs.

Drone use in protest is untested ground - though in Germany a protest group flew a drone toward Chancellor Angela Merkel, landing it harmlessly near her - but the potential was demonstrated by Marx Jones in his famous flour-bombing of Eden Park from a light aircraft during the third and final test match of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour.

Packer says flying a plane over Eden Park took skill. "It doesn't with a drone."

- Sunday Star Times

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