'Dronies' take-off creating aerial headaches

MAHESH SHARMA
Last updated 12:36 28/07/2014
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HIGH BEAMS: The flight crew at Melbourne's iDrones takes a dronie.

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DRONIES: Selfies taken by a drone are the latest in self-photography but experts warn that it could have huge safety implications.

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The next evolution in self-photography has arrived. Selfies taken with a drone, or "dronies", have sent narcissistic outdoor performers into a spin but the increasingly popular photography tool could be on a collision course with flight rules aimed at safety.

The term came to the fore about three months ago, when Photojojo founder Amit Gupta, uploaded a short video of himself, his friends, and their dogs, which had been taken by attaching a GoPro to a drone. From a tightly framed shot of the subjects standing atop San Francisco's Bernal Hill, the unit flies backwards to reveal a landscaped view of the green mount,with the city in the background.

Then Twitter used drones to create aerial views, including of people, at the Cannes Lions advertising festival in the south of France in June.

This week, New Zealand Tourism started cashing in on the hype, hiring an independent unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operator to capture footage of Australian snowgoers at the ski fields, including visitors to Mt Cook, Queenstown and Lake Tekapo.

The tourism agency used the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ drone, which can fly at around 55 kilometresan hour at a height of 275 metres, to upload a few short, eight-second videos on Friday. The shot is initially focused on the tourist but quickly pulls back to reveal Queenstown's lush waterfront.

Recently, thousands of punters forked out more than $2 million, via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, to fund the creation of two "dronie" prototypes, "Hexo" and "AirDog". They promise to automatically follow their subject around and are aimed at outdoor sporting enthusiasts, such as mountain bikers and snowboarders.

Rex Kenny, manager special flight operations at the civil aviation authority of New Zealand, said it worked with Tourism New Zealand's UAV operator to implement a standard safety plan for drones that, like the one used in the snow, weigh less than 25 kilograms. This includes providing air traffic clearance, even though it's flying at "very low levels".

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Ryan Hamlet, project manager at Melbourne UAV-photographer iDrones, said  taking a "dronie" isn't as simple as sticking out your arm and clicking a button. He said there is also a danger in units designed to automatically follow you around, which cannot predict all the variables, such as wind and low-hanging obstacles such as trees that may disrupt the predicted flight trajectory.

"What happens if people, animals, crazy weather or a police helicopter enters your area and you have a drone in the air, preset to follow you?," Hamlet said. "You need to be able to respond a lot quicker than you can via an app.

"Out in middle of the desert, riding a mountain bike down the side of mountain, it's going to be awesome, but if you're in Albert Park, running around a track, it's going to be a disaster."

However, CAA's Kenny said the prevalence of drones and the increasing attention created by the "dronie", have caused a headache for his lean organisation. It doesn't have the resources to support more than 100 flight queries it fields everyday.

"We have one employee who's permanently fielding registration requests and inquiries and nothing else," Kenny said. "The problem is that drones are just so available: people buy them off the internet and have no idea there are any rules at all."

He hopes to embark on an educational campaign similar to that conducted by Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which, after being inundated with a deluge of registration requests, now distributes information pamphlets via drones purchased overseas.

"It's a worldwide situation,'' he said. "In the US they've just said 'we're not going to operate them' but we think there's a place for them and there's some really good work they can do, and we're just trying to provide a little bit more assistance from that point of view.

"There's no use standing in front of an avalanche with your arms out."

- The Age

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