Technology outstrips the response

The policy and practice of drone use and enforcement in New Zealand and in much of the world is a chaotic and dangerous mess.

One instinct is to minimise rules if possible because our society easily becomes over-regulated. But that will not be possible as drone risks and concerns mount. This week, for example, flights at Heathrow Airport, London, were stopped because of a drone. Drones caused massive disruption at neighbouring Gatwick just before Christmas.

In Auckland on New Year's Eve, drones came perilously close to two helicopters. How long will it be before a major disaster occurs?

Various regulations were developed in New Zealand to try to ameliorate the issues.

They have, largely, been a failure. Perhaps in themselves the basic rules are sensible. But they are ignored by just about everyone. Only a few users try to abide by them. Their frustration is palpable and understandable.

Drones can be bought cheaply in New Zealand and overseas. They have become a common young person's Christmas present, and only now, two weeks after Christmas, are reports of lost drones beginning to dry up. No doubt, nearly all those drones were operated illegally. For a start, drones have to be used within unaided sight.

Drones are also regularly flown over the Dunedin Railway Station. Again, almost certainly, all sorts of rules are broken every time. Above the station, the drones are "unshielded" by a building or trees. The chances of operators having required authority from the Dunedin City Council are also remote. Three days' notice plus permission is required to fly over council land or roads or beaches. What, too, about approval from KiwiRail?

Given assent is needed to fly over anyone's land, it would seem almost all city use is illegal without official sanction. Perhaps a short vertical hop above a section is permissible. Above a farm might be more practical.

Meanwhile, almost all those drones around Wanaka and Queenstown are being used illegally. As guidelines for tourists explain, the Queenstown Lakes District Council at present does not give approval for flights over any of its parks, reserves or roads. Approval is needed from each individual private landowner whose property you wish to fly over, and the Department of Conservation has guidelines for drone operators. For a start, you need a concession from Doc, which can take up to five days to approve.

There are, then, both the extensive Civil Aviation rules and whatever the relevant local authority has decided.

Those national regulations include a height limit (apart from special exemptions) of 120m (400 feet), consent from anyone you want to fly above and knowledge of the airspace restrictions that apply in the area where you want to operate.

For most cases, these rules are hardly worth the website space they are written on because they are ignored so widely and so blatantly. How many of those who received a drone for Christmas would have any idea about much of this? And how many would care?

What is especially disturbing is the risk of a drone bringing down a plane, helicopter or, say, a paraglider.

Pilots and lobbyists are calling for stricter regulations, and they could well be right. But it is also true the total lack of enforcement mocks what rules are already in place.

There is going to have to be resource put towards enforcement, and drones as toys, unfortunately, have no future.

All around the world, authorities are going to have to come to grips with the challenges this technology brings. It has all sorts of uses and much unrealised potential. But it is accompanied by numerous hazards.

 

Comments

2 things to note:
Firstly, perhaps the rules are 'widely and blatantly' ignored because they are completely over the top and unnecessary in many cases?

Secondly, and going to the heart of the matter, there seems to be this presumption that multirotor RC models ("drones") are more dangerous than a runaway Hummer filled with TNT. Have there been any reported deaths, globally? Any *confirmed* crashes caused by drones to aviation, globally? Often, pilot-reported near-misses are of blurred objects so 'must have been a drone' but again, nothing confirmed. The often cited test of a drone being projectile fired into the wing of a plane has been discredited - but that doesn't stop it's continued use. Seriously though, are they that much a risk to life and limb? The record of evidence of the past 5 years seems to say otherwise. Yes, there's no doubt an industrial-level $5k+ drone would do damage, but they are as rare as the aforementioned Hummer. The under-$1k multirotor toys that get flown in NZ skies are not the bogeyman threat they are painted as. Unless, of course, you are a pilot who makes their living via aerial reconnaissance - and that's an income-related threat.

The initial mass panic about drones was about privacy. That resulted in absurd laws being put in place so that even in the most remote locations, it is not possible to fly without permission (in case a rabbit has it's privacy breached?).

DCC takes three days to give permission to fly a drone, making it virtually impossible to plan a flight (who can tell what the wind speed with be in three days time?).

To fly above a road for a few minutes to take a real estate picture to sell a house, DCC roading dept requires a road management plan with cones, warning signs, stop/go lights or stop/go people, advance notifications etc, costing thousands of dollars. Seagulls the size of a drone fly over roads all the time without the same requirement.

A flight near the central city, can require permission from at least seven organisations and council departments. Only one (Dunedin Traffic Control Tower) added to the safety of the flight. Absurdly, drone pilots are not required to notify the most likely safety conflict - Helicopters Otago.

The requirements for flying drones are so ridiculous, they are largely ignored.

They need to be simplified, focused mainly on aircraft safety.

For info, if a house is occupied, sellers require tenant consent before interiors may be marketed on the Internet. The same should apply to habited outdoor spaces.

 

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