Uncertain new world of drones

When a quality drone can be bought for $1000, and an adequate one for $200, it is little wonder they are flying off the shelves.

There are already thousands of them in this country, and well over a million in the United States.

Flying model aeroplanes has been a small niche interest, and most had limited range and capabilities.  Not so today’s remotely piloted aircraft system technology. As well as their popularity and availability, a range of 7km is not out of line as the technology takes off.

That distance might as well be a million miles beyond what the Civil Aviation rules say is allowed. A drone must be in the "pilot’s" naked-eye sight at all times and flown during daylight.

There are also several other regulations, many disregarded by the average pilot. How many know flying within 4km of an aerodrome is illegal, that Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown have substantial air-traffic control zones which prohibit their use above buildings and trees, and that property-owner permission is required before flying a drone above land? Drones are not allowed higher than 120m or to weigh more than 25kg, and each local territorial authority has rules for flying above its parks, reserves, roads and beaches.

In Dunedin permission is required — and that can take days, although more streamlined processes could be coming.  Queenstown Lakes has said no to all types of remote-controlled aircraft flying over its land and roads at present, with only a limited commercial filming permit exception.  Consistency around the country would be useful.

Playing by the rules is not straightforward, and many either ignore or are ignorant about them.

They came in during 2015, recognising safety, privacy and nuisance issues.  In many ways restrictions are a shame.  Why spoil fun?  Why limit the myriad applications?  Why slow the use of an exciting technology that could, as Domino’s demonstrated in 2016, deliver pizza.?

But the issues are serious. Just as cars once roamed free and had to be regulated, so too with drones.  Few want a camera-equipped eye-in-the-sky flying over their section, viewing their lack of security, sunbathing or personal idiosyncrasies, not to mention the possible intrusion of a droning noise.

There are also safety issues with crashing drones and potential terrorism fears.

At present, the primary worry is aviation safety. So far crashes have been avoided. But near-misses are commonplace. A drone sucked into a jet engine could well be worse than a bird strike, and a drone tangling with helicopter rotors could cause catastrophe. 

Helicopter fire-fighting on the big Port Hills blaze near Christchurch last February had to be halted because of the presence of a drone,  and a 33-year-old man has been charged with endangering a transport facility after a drone was flown near this week’s Wanaka Mt Alpha fire.

Not surprisingly, Civil Aviation is concerned.  It wants every drone sold in New Zealand to be accompanied by a leaflet or a sticker on the box, reminding people of the rules.

That should ameliorate widespread ignorance.  But what of drones bought overseas or via overseas internet sites?

An option being discussed in some places is a requirement for drone manufacturers to install GPS geofencing technology.  This would prevent drones working in restricted areas or flying higher than is allowed.

Drones are coming into their own on farms and have found their way into beach patrolling.  Not only might emergencies  be spotted faster, but flotation devices might be dropped quickly near struggling swimmers. Real-estate agents have been using them for photographs and they can be used —subject to the restrictions —  covering sports and news events. One day, if pathways in the sky can be established for unmanned aircraft, they could come into their own delivering small packages to far more than just isolated places.

In the meantime, regulators are struggling in the face of the fast-growing fleet of drones.  Much remains to be worked through.


Maybe the law on destruction of property, which will be the fate of drones flying low along highways, or hovering outside bedroom windows.