Drone allegedly makes an impact of the wrong sort

April 7, 2014 |

That drone technology has the potential to create problems almost as great as the significant benefits it brings to civilian use has been obvious for almost the outset.  In’River of blood’ after drone ‘hits’ Australian athlete the Age reports on a possible collision between a drone and an individual.  There are competing versions of events.  Whether someone was struck by a drone or not it matters little.  The reported incident highlights the increasing use of drones in the public space.  Drones purchased from hobby shops are inexpensive and operated by anyone who can stump up the cash. That is all it takes.  Putting a camera on a drone doesn’t require a licence or training.  The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has the regulatory responsibility but that only goes as far as complying with height restrictions and prohibited areas.  Nothing about privacy protections.  The regulatory environment is a hotchpotch and completely inadequate.  The Privacy Act does virtually nothing to provide proper protections.

It provides:

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority says it is investigating an incident that involved an athlete in a West Australian triathlon being injured by a drone that was filming the event.

Raija Ogden said she was hit on the head by the drone on Sunday when it crashed. But the drone’s owner says she was simply frightened by the machine and fell to the ground.

In an interview with The West Australian, Mrs Ogden labelled the drone owner’s suggestion that she was simply frightened as “horrifying” and said spectators would have seen her get hit.

At least one spectator Fairfax Media spoke to backed her claim. Another, who wrote on Facebook that they saw the incident, said that the drone hit Mrs Ogden and appeared to be an accident.

“I have lacerations on my head from the drone and the ambulance crew took a piece of propeller from my head,” Mrs Ogden told The West Australian.

Fairfax attempted to contact her unsuccessfully.

“My hair was completely red with blood. I didn’t hit the ground,” Mrs Ogden said. “I sat down because I just thought I was going to pass out.”

She was taken to Geraldton Hospital and received three stitches to her head.

A witness to part of the incident, who did not wish to be named, said they heard a “loud crack” and turned around to see Mrs Ogden in a state of shock.

“She was stumbling and I will never forget the look on her face,” the witness said. “She just could not believe it. She was shocked and in disbelief.”

The witness said her sunglasses fell to the ground and then “this big river of blood” poured straight down her face.

Hacking claim

The drone owner Warren Abrams, of New Era Ag Tech, suggested in various interviews on Monday morning that the drone might have been “hacked”.

Mr Abrams told ABC Radio that his own investigation showed that someone other than the pilot had “channel-hopped” and taken control of the drone. Mr Abrams separately told The West Australian that footage from the drone taken moments before the accident showed Mrs Ogden looking over her shoulder as it came up behind her.

“She looks over her shoulder and gets frightened, falling to the ground and bumping her head, but the drone didn’t actually strike her,” he said.

According to drone regulator CASA, drones need to be at least 30 metres away from people. The rules also state a person must not operate a drone in a way that creates a hazard.

CASA said the incident was “a clear reminder” of the need for all operators of unmanned aircraft – both commercial and recreational – to obey the safety regulations at all times.

“Using commonsense and following the rules while flying drones will avoid accidents and injuries,” it said.

Geraldton Triathlon Club president Simon Teakle said an investigation would be conducted.

“This incident should never have occurred,” he said.

Questions over licence

Mr Abrams told Fairfax he held a licence to fly, but would not say whether his company had one.

It’s understood Mr Abrams has a fixed-wing pilot licence, but not the type that allows him or his company to operate quadcopter drones for commercial purposes.

Photographs show the drone involved in Sunday’s incident was a quadcopter.

The Geraldton Triathlon Club said Mr Abrams’ company was not paid a fee to take footage using the drone on Sunday.

Instead it filmed in return for having ads placed on event promotional material, the club said.

Whether the drones were filming for commercial purposes will be important to CASA’s investigation, as different rules apply to commercial and recreational operators.

Mr Abrams said he was in charge at the time of the incident and that another person had their hands on the controller.

He would not name who was flying it, nor say whether they had a licence to fly.

“I am licensed and I was there with the pilot,” Mr Abrams told Fairfax.

Asked repeatedly if the pilot was licensed, Mr Abrams refused to answer and became defensive.

Beer delivery

A video on Facebook shows Mr Abrams’ company has flown a drone at the Esperance Show, demonstrating how it could deliver beer to people.

It’s understood no approval was sought from the regulator for that demonstration, which occurred close to people.

Commercial drone operator Coptercam’s chief pilot Hai Tran, whose company’s drones fly over sporting events, says his company has never crashed drones.

Tran feared a knee-jerk reaction by CASA which could result in the ban of drones near people because of the WA incident.

“My concern is that this incident makes the industry look bad,” Tran said.

“There are thousands and thousands of successful flights without a single incident,” he added.

News of the Sunday injury, which occurred at the Endure Batavia Triathlon, comes after aviation regulator CASA recently fined an unlicensed operator about $800 when his drone crashed into the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Video of that incident shows the drone landing on the bridge’s railway tracks.

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