Unmanned test flights opposed

Skybase founder and CEO Michael Read. Photo: Alexia Johnston
Skybase founder and CEO Michael Read. Photo: Alexia Johnston
A proposal to fly 1.6-tonne unmanned aircraft over Central Otago has drawn ire from some  aviators and landowners, but the company behind the proposal says the technology is safe.

Airborne data networking company Skybase has applied to the Civil Aviation Authority to establish a 500sqkm restricted space for "beyond visual line of sight" trial flights of unmanned aircraft, initially at night.

The restricted space would stretch from the Alexandra Airport across the Ida Valley to Wedderburn and Gimmerburn, and reach as high as 2133m.

The proposal has been met with fear by some residents, who have safety concerns and say it would be unfair to restrict other aviators from using the space.

But Skybase founder and chief executive Michael Read said his company wanted to "work with people" and would answer all questions at a public meeting in Alexandra next week.

Skybase, in partnership with MAG Aerospace, would start using its  unmanned fleet of aircraft — with wing spans ranging from 2.4m to 5m — for the Central Otago testing, Mr Read said. The aircraft would be operated by a pilot at Alexandra Airport, where Skybase hopes to eventually have  10-12 staff.

In a year, it was intended to start commercially testing PAC750XL or PAC750XSTOL aircraft, which had a wing span of 12.8m, weighed 1.6 tonnes and had a "design cruising speed" of 259kmh, Mr Read said.

He said the unmanned aircraft technology was not new, and clarified the "experimental" aspect of the project related only to its commercial aspect.

"We’re not testing what they fly, we’re testing the procedures ... and taking existing technology and making it commercially viable ... It may need to be in an ‘experimental’ category, but it’s not an experimental project."

Central Otago residents Ken Gillespie, of Oturehua, flight instructor Nick Taylor, of Alexandra, and Paul Murphy, who owns land in the Ida Valley but works as a pilot in Hong Kong, criticised the lack of information about the proposal and said it should be tested elsewhere.

"This is not a 5kg drone that could hit a cow,"  Mr Murphy said.

"We’re not saying they shouldn’t be tested. We just don’t think that smack in the middle of Central Otago is the place for it."

Mr Read said one of the key commercial applications for the technology was for top dressing.

"If we weren’t testing for agriculture, we would be [doing the testing] in the desert. But we’re testing for agriculture and that’s why we have to do it here. The agricultural side of it is potentially transformative — it will save money and lives." 

• A public meeting on the proposal will be held at the Alexandra Fire Station at 7.30pm on September 18. Submissions  close on September 26.



The proposal

To commercially test unmanned aircraft with wing spans of up to 12.8m in a restricted airspace.

• The aircraft would be operated by a pilot from an Alexandra Airport base.

• The technology could eventually be used for the likes of search and rescue and top dressing, and by Fire and Emergency New Zealand. 

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