Unmanned aircraft test plans shelved for good

Michael Read
Michael Read
Plans to test unmanned aircraft in Central Otago have been shelved due to fierce resistance from Central Otago aviators and farmers.

Skybase founder Michael Read confirmed yesterday the company was no longer planning any operations in Alexandra and said the opposition of Central Otago residents to Skybase meant no other projects in the area would ever be pursued.

Last year the company made an application to the Civil Aviation Authority to establish 500sq km of restricted airspace stretching from Alexandra to Wedderburn and Gimmerburn to allow test-flying of unmanned aircraft, initially with wingspans from between 2.4m and 5m and later up to 12.8m.

A public meeting held in September about the issue became heated and emotional, many speakers criticising the Skybase chief executive and also his company's intentions.

Seventy submissions on the proposal were received and at one stage Alexandra aviators were planning legal action to oppose the application.

Mr Read said yesterday the meeting had been ''really unpleasant'', and when he arrived to the meeting one woman made a clear ''slit-throat'' action towards him.

He attributed the response from much of the crowd to a ''fear of change'' typical of ''human nature'', not necessarily Central Otago residents.

''When faced with change it's not necessarily going to bring out the best behaviour ... the reality was that people [at the meeting] had largely made up their minds before the meeting. They went in with an agenda.''

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan said yesterday the meeting was ''the most brutal meeting that I've been to in my time in Central''.

''There was potential for compromise that might have made Skybase's plan workable, but unfortunately the approach that was taken from the outset didn't engage with the flying community and landowners ... it led to fear, which led to anger and fairly strong resistance.''

Mr Read said Skybase already had other operations elsewhere in New Zealand and in Australia and Indonesia, and was now working as part of the Christchurch aerospace community to boost the aerospace industry and achieve a ''co-ordinated approach'' with the Government.

He said the benefits of unmanned aircraft in areas such as agriculture, search and rescue and transport were potentially ''transformative''.

Mr Cadogan said Skybase's decision to pull out of Central Otago was potentially an ''opportunity lost'' for the district, ''but we're never going to know how much we would have got compared to what we might have lost''.

pam.jones@odt.co.nz

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