Drones and collisions and police

March 28, 2014 |

Itnews reports on a drone v helicopter near miss in Drone almost collides with Westpac Rescue chopper.   It is hardly an unexpected event.  The expansion in the use of drones by properly trained and accredited operators and the hobbyists, the limited enforcement of regulations is making for a complicated situation in the airwaves.  The lack of privacy protection is a significant issue both in Australia (where protections are weak and have been traditionally enforced sporadically) and the United States of America, where the legislative response has been focused at a state level.

It provides:

UAV aimed for helicopter.

 The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating a narrowly avoided collision on Saturday night between a Westpac Rescue chopper and an unmanned aerial vehicle.

One of two Bell 412 choppers the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service operates was involved in a near miss with the UAV near its Newcastle base in NSW on March 22 at about 10pm.

During the flight, according to the ATSB’s open investigation, the chopper’s crew spotted a UAV at about 1000 feet above ground level, which then turned and tracked towards the helicopter.

The crew were then forced to take “evasive action” to avoid a collision, the ATSB said. No-one was injured in the incident.

The UAV was well above its maximum allowed altitude – drone pilots need approval to operate above 400 feet.

The agency is conducting interviews with the helicopter’s crew and gathering additional information as part of its investigation, and will release a report by June.

The Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service has been operating as a 24/7 rescue team since 1981. It currently operates four aircraft – two of which are Bell 412s, as well as two BK117 choppers. All are twin-engine and single pilot machines.

The service works in unison with NSW emergency services agencies and runs out of two bases in Tamworth and Broadmeadow in Newcastle. 

The AM program of 4 April covers the near miss in Mid-air near miss raises concerns over regulation of drones which provides:

CHRIS UHLMANN: A near miss between a rescue helicopter and a drone at Newcastle has revived the debate over regulating unmanned flying objects.

The Westpac Rescue Helicopter says the incident could have brought the chopper down.

Experts warn that drones that could cause such a disaster can be bought for a handful of dollars and are almost impossible to police.

Simon Frazer reports.

SIMON FRAZER: The Hunter region’s Westpac Rescue Helicopter is a daily visitor to Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital.

It was returning from the hospital to base two weeks ago when a drone forced the pilot to take evasive action.

Glen Ramplin is a crewman with the helicopter service.

GLEN RAMPLIN: Even things like birds can damage an aircraft so to run into the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or the drone if you will, you know, that could have been catastrophic. Like not only could it have damaged the aircraft but could have bought the actual aircraft down and over a residential area which could be just an untold amount of casualties possibly.

SIMON FRAZER: At the time the helicopter was flying above a thousand feet – a height equivalent to New York’s Empire State Building.

RMIT drone expert Reece Clothier says a remote controlled aircraft capable of that altitude can be easily bought by anyone.

REECE CLOTHIER: You could buy one or at least assemble one for under $100. The commercial, off-the-shelf unmanned aircraft with that built-in capability, you’re probably paying more than $100, up to $200 to $300 to get a system that can fly that high.

Most of them fly under what we call first person view so they have a camera mounted on board, but they don’t actually have to keep it in visual range.

SIMON FRAZER: Glen Ramplin says they believe the drone may have gone looking for the helicopter.

GLEN RAMPLIN: The area that it was operating in is, you know, an area that our aircraft, you know, traverses a couple of times a day so local people here in Newcastle know that the aircraft does fly in that area quite often so you know, it’s a strong possibility that that could be the case.

SIMON FRAZER: He says the helicopter’s crew have been interviewed by investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Authority.

REECE CLOTHIER: It’s just a matter of letting them do their job and just to try and see whether, you know, they can make head or tails of what’s actually gone on, but it’s probably going to be quite difficult to find the actual person that was operating it because yeah, it’s pretty much like a needle in a haystack.

SIMON FRAZER: The situation has been compared to the past problem of laser pointers being directed at planes and helicopters.

REECE CLOTHIER: At least with the laser pointers you can get a bit of a fair idea of where the laser has sort of come from but, yeah with this it’s just, you know, a person could have been in their backyard.

SIMON FRAZER: Unregistered drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are not allowed to fly above 400 feet.

But Reece Clothier says it’s extremely likely the Newcastle incident was a rogue amateur flier rather than a professional.

He says technology is little help in tracking down offenders or stopping drones flying so high.

REECE CLOTHIER: In theory we could implement software in these devices, but it’s very hard to get all manufacturers around the world to adopt that in the autopilots.

And, then you’d have to put checks in places to make sure that is actually functioning and working when you import these devices as well.

SIMON FRAZER: Dr Clothier says the industry body for professional drone operators is pushing for more resources for the Civil Aviation Authority to battle the problem.

REECE CLOTHIER: It poses a threat not only to the safety and well-being of commercial passengers and sometimes people on the ground, but also the professionalism of those in the industry who are doing the right thing by the regulation.

While the World Today also covers drones in ‘Regulate drone sales’ which provides:

TANYA NOLAN: Calls are being made to regulate the sale of drones after two more serious mid-air incidents in recent weeks.

In the latest incident, a rescue helicopter was involved in a near-miss with a drone in Newcastle and a passenger plane was forced to divert its course as it came in to land at Perth Airport.

The Transport Safety Bureau is investigating the incidents, but licensed drone operators fear the enormous potential of the technology could be threatened by the hazardous actions of a few.

Simon Frazer reports.

SIMON FRAZER: Drones, also known unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, are now used for everything from warfare and aerial photography to weekend fun.

It’s their interaction with other aircraft though that’s prompted warnings of a fatal crash waiting to happen.

Joe Urli is the president of the Australian Certified UAV Operators Association.

JOE URLI: I don’t think it’s a question of if it’ll happen. It’s a question of when it will happen. It’s obviously the authorities are concerned about this and trying to police this widespread issue is pretty challenging from a safety perspective.

SIMON FRAZER: Last month a 50-seat passenger plane approaching Perth airport was forced to evade a drone flying at about 1200 metres.

That’s about 400 metres higher than the world’s tallest building.

Then three days later a rescue helicopter had to dodge a drone as it flew above 300 metres in the dark at Newcastle.

JOE URLI: Those two near misses were pretty significant in terms of behavioural marker in the industry. The two events involved aircraft that were unaware of a UAV in the vicinity.

SIMON FRAZER: Only licensed drone operators are legally permitted to fly above 120 metres.

But Joe Urli says its likely amateur fliers were responsible in both cases, especially the Newcastle incident.

JOE URLI: The use of unmanned aerial vehicles at night is forbidden. Obviously the time that the event occurred at approximately 10 o’clock at night was a strong indicator that the operator of that unmanned aerial vehicle was unaware of the regulations and also potentially, you know, the visibility at night is very difficult for manned aircraft.

SIMON FRAZER: Experts say in both cases the drones could have caused a fatal crash.

Paul Martin uses and sells UAVs through his business Aerial Photography Specialists.

PAUL MARTIN: Just a simple bird, pigeon, a seagull, they can take down full size airliners throughout history quite regularly, even jet fighters. They hit birds and they crash. I mean it doesn’t take a very big object to cause a lot of damage. So people who think a small little drone, it can’t really do much, they’re just uneducated, they don’t understand.

SIMON FRAZER: The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating both recent mid-air incidents, and has interviewed the crew of both aircraft.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority is charged with enforcing drone safety but has limited resources to deal with the problem.

Identifying those operating the devices dangerously has also been described as “like finding a needle is a haystack”.

Joe Urli says drone safety is a global problem.

JOE URLI: I think it’s a question of obviously effective regulation, education and enforcement. I think there’s got to be a strong deterrent in terms of operating these vehicles unlawfully. It’s the uneducated community out there that purchase these devices and operate them. I think there needs to be an interagency task force that is assembled to actually deal with this, this issue.

SIMON FRAZER: Should this taskforce look at the issue of the unregulated sale of drones?

JOE URLI: I think there should be some control mechanism for entry control. I think there should be at least a form of registration, like purchasing a mobile phone.

SIMON FRAZER: Paul Martin is more sceptical about controlling the sale of drones, saying a better approach is to ensure those who use them know what they’re doing.

PAUL MARTIN: Education is the first thing. People do need to be made aware that flying around at 1,000 or 4,000 feet and nearly coming into contact with manned aircraft is not only absurd but it’s actually very dangerous to other people’s lives and should they cause an incident, they probably wouldn’t realise but they could be potentially charged with manslaughter.

SIMON FRAZER: He hopes the stigma from unlicensed fliers doesn’t harm the otherwise huge potential of drones.

PAUL MARTIN: It is going to be one of those few technologies that will dramatically reshape the way the planet operates and what we do and how we do it and it’s going to happen. It already is happening, but we’ve just got to make sure that the industry is protected and done properly.

TANYA NOLAN: And that’s Paul Martin from Aerial Photography Specialists ending that report from Simon Frazer.

Meanwhile in Qld Police drone operations take off itnews reports on Queensland Police’s use of drones in its regular operations.  It provides:

The Queensland Police Service has revealed it is currently operating two unmanned aerial vehicles in regular operations, following a trial commenced back in 2012.

Described by colleagues at the Australian Federal Police as being “the most mature and extensive in their use of UAVs” amongst the nation’s law enforcement, the QPS first deployed the drones on Boxing Day last year during a siege on the outskirts of Brisbane.

Fronting a committee of federal parliamentarians on Friday, senior officers running the program listed a commercially manufactured CyberCopter and an internally constructed octocopter as making up the QPS fleet.

They said the drones were primarily used to provide aerial “situational awareness” to police in high risk situations like the Brisbane siege, or to act as an extra set of eyes during search and rescue operations conducted in hazardous surrounds.

Quizzed on the privacy implications of the new capability, the QPS representatives said there was no immediate plan to expand use of the drones into covert intelligence gathering operations – largely due to height caps set by the aviation regulator.

“Our use right now is limited to really overt activities,” head of the unmanned vehicles program Inspector Brad Wright said.

“When we turn up at a scene there are usually already a lot of police there. Because we fly at under 400ft the drones are really quite noisy, which limits our capability to be covert.”

He didn’t rule out moving into more secretive drone activity in the future.

“This technology will continue to improve and expanding its application will become a consideration…but that is not part of our current project,” he said.

The 400ft height limit for small drone flights has been imposed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) which regulates commercial drone use. Beyond this, operators need approval from CASA to enter flight space.

The cap wasn’t the only CASA rule referred to the committee as impeding the use of drone technology in an emergency services setting.

Also appearing before the committee, Assistant Commissioner John Watson from Queensland’s Fire and Rescue Service said his agency would have to think carefully about rules requiring drones to remain within the sight of operators before following the QPS into a full deployment.

“Line of sight limitations could be a problem for us,” he said, citing smoky bushfires and flying drones into damaged buildings as examples of uses where vision would be hard to maintain.

He said drone manufacturers would “have to improve mapping interfaces” before the technology could meaningfully be used by his organisation, but said he was confident the technology was maturing.

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