Small Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (drones) Mid-Air Collision Study

Last day of July, three and a half hours til August (at the time I started typing) and I realise I haven’t written anything all month…

DJI Phantom

Unmanned aircraft is a subject that I thought I had moved on from but this report popped up in my inbox this evening…only a couple of days after I spoke with a couple of clowns flying a large drone over the Chateau Golf Course in Whakapapa Village. They pleaded ignorance of both National Park and Civil Aviation Agency legislation relating to flying drones in or over the Park but really? You don’t buy and operate a big drone like that without knowing the law.

That law is quite simple:

It is illegal to land, take-off or hover an aircraft in, from or over Tongariro National Park. A drone (of any class or size) is regarded as an aircraft. Any exceptions must have prior formal written approval from the Department of Conservation.

The land-owner’s prior permission is required before a drone can be flown over private land; or the permission from the mandated controlling authority for public land e.g. the local council or, for the Park, the Department of Conservation.

 In addition, rescue helicopters can and do enter the Park at any time of day or night, from any direction. Even on a clear day, the setting sun can obscure vision to such an extent that a pilot may not see a drone in time to avoid it.

airfield 4km

CAA Rules also prohibit the operation of drones within 4km of an airfield, that is 4km from the closest boundary of an airfield. For the Chateau Airfield (by the intersection of SH47 and SH48), that 4km limit takes you to just above the bridge over the Whakapapanui Stream. It means that you can’t fly your drone:

at Discovery Lodge (which has its own heli-pad in any case) or

at the camp site at Mangahuia, further along SH47 towards National Park Village, or

over Mahuia Rapids just along 47 in the other direction or

on the Tawhai Falls or Mound Walk trails that come off SH48.

Those who say that a small drone wouldn’t do any significant damage to an manned aircraft should read the report that I received this evening. You can find the report, Small Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (drones) Mid-Air Collision Study, here.

It is sobering reading: even a small (think Toyworld) drone can cause considerable damage to a light aircraft or helicopter, particularly the windscreen and tail rotor. Any components ingested into the engine may also cause unneeded excitement for the pilot and passengers of that manned aircraft.

the bits that hurt
The bits that hurt…

In a way this report is quite gratifying as it supports the work that I did for the Air and Space Interoperability Council and subsequently NATO on the hazards of small unmanned aircraft sharing operational airspace with manned aircraft.

If you own a drone of any sort in New Zealand, you do need to read Part 101 and Part 102 of the Civil Aviation Agency Rules, and the note RPAS, UAV, UAS, Drones and Model Aircraft. You won’t, of course, because you think you have an ultimate right to do whatever you like in the Park…that’s alright…but don’t be surprised if guides or Rangers just snap your pic and send it directly to CAA for action…

You might think it’s great your drone will follow your phone as you rip down the slopes at Whakapapa or Turoa…on a ‘good’ day in winter, there may be a half dozen or more rescue helicopter flights on to the ski fields or around the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, often in restricted visibility: that’s hard enough without the pilot having to worry about some goon operating their drone illegally.

Similarly, around the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, no one wants to be subjected to mosquito-like totally annoying whine of your drone…nor should should pilots have to look out for them as they approach for a rescue – when you’re too dumb to hear the helo coming in and dump your drone…

What we really need are a few good prosecutions to drive this message home BEFORE we have an accident…

Aviation Related Concern

To report an aviation safety or security concern, that may include complaints, or allegations of suspected breaches of civil aviation legislation, call: 0508 4SAFETY (0508 472 338) available office hours (voicemail after hours), or email:

Pictures, video, rego numbers are useful information to back up your complaint and hopefully lead to a successful prosecution. Ignorance of the law is no excuse…

Unmanned aircraft for Search and Rescue: not quite that simple, TV3…

(c) TV3 2014

(c) TV3 2014

There was an interesting item on Campbell Live last night about the use of ‘cutting edge’ unmanned aircraft for search and rescue applications (note the video in the linked article may not work for overseas readers). While it all looked very cool and exciting, it was a little misleading when it presented these small UAs as ‘…running on the spell of an oily rag…’, beyond the blindingly obvious fact that all the UA shown were electrically-powered and thus rather unimpressed by the proffered ‘oily rag’!

A reliable UA of any size is not cheap…your average Toyworld flying camera device may last for a while, but eventually you will end up with a large number of them scattered over the land- and seascapes. In addition they tend not to have the endurance necessary for any practical employment for search and rescue other than perhaps peeking into nearby spots not easily accessible by a person. You get what you pay for and if lives are relying on it, the device must be reliable and have sufficient endurance to be useful.

Unmanned aircraft systems are not really unmanned: it’s just that the flying component lacks seats in most cases. They all require at least one person to operate them and, for safe operation, generally at least two are required: one to control the aircraft, and others to observe the airspace for any other users and these may include not just other aircraft but para-surfers, kites and any of our feathered friends that may take offence at this noisy intruder into their domain. If operating at very low altitudes as shown in the video clip, the ground observers may also have to watch for vessels on the surface as well. Relying on volunteers is all very nice but UAS operators need to be trained and accredited to conduct any but the most limited flying.

The supporting infrastructure costs as well, not just in the cost of initial setup and acquisition but also in the ongoing maintenance including the regular replacement of critical components as they reach the end of their defined life. If supporting a SAR operation in a remote area, the unmanned aircraft system will probably need to include some form of vehicle, also not cheap.

All those video visors, laptops and viewing screens seen in the video clip? Again, not cheap.

It appeared that all the UA shown in the clip were flown directly from a controller similar to that used by the remote control aircraft community. While this may be practical for short (in time and distance) flights, this form of control for longer flights is inefficient and places a greater burden on the operator. All the flights shown in the clips appeared rather ad hoc and ‘zoomy’ i.e. all very cool looking but lacking the methodical search pattern essential in a for-real search and rescue operation. An effective autopilot allows the UA to maintain controlled flight and follow a methodical search pattern without constant operator input. Again, this necessary technology is not cheap; it’s not THAT expensive either but has to be reliable and also professionally integrated into the other systems that make up the UAS.

While I think that it is great that the national search and rescue community are researching the potential of unmanned aircraft for this role, and that there is a great potential for UA in this role, I also think that they would get a better return on their investment in time and money by not seeking to design their own UA or supporting the ‘I built a UAV in my garage‘ community and instead engaging directly with the existing (and growing) commercial UAS community both in New Zealand and overseas. I think that they would find that there would already be existing mature reliable designs that would meet all the requirements shown in the video item…and that reliability comes at a cost…

A battle lost…

Don’t Use the ‘D’ Word: They’re ‘UAVs’ or ‘RPAs’ But Definitely Not ‘Drones’

I came across this article on the Information Dominance Corps Self Synchronization (yes, it is bit of mouthful) Facebook feed…once upon a time this argument may have mattered but now it is nothing more than ambient noise. We have far more important things to worry about in the UAS world than mindless semantic games…


Does it matter really if I call this a plane, an aircraft or an airplane?


Or this a helicopter, a whokka, a helo, a rotary-wing aircraft or a whirlybird.


Or this, a car, an automobile or a vehicle?

No…it doesn’t, not in normal colloquial speech and writing…many years ago, I remember great battles ranging over whether vehicles like LAVIII and Stryker were medium infantry, mech infantry or some weirdo thing called heavy infantry. This went on for months and about the points of agreement were that they were neither the light infantry or tanks so dear to our hearts. In the end, the general issued an all-points stating that he didn’t care if they were called the Third Pink Flying Pig Brigade and that he was more interested in what we could do with these things.

Dictionaries have already added the unmanned aircraft definition of ‘drone’ so there is not much point arguing the toss anymore. What is important is that we use the correct terminology when we talk about unmanned aircraft within our community and when we engage with external audiences. The general public can quite happily refer to them as drones, just all of us equally happily refer to cars, planes and choppers…

Personally I think that we need to stop treating UAS as something mystical and special and start to treat them simply as what they: unmanned aircraft…aircraft that do not normally operate with an onboard pilot…and within unmanned aircraft, we have , in our  technically correct lexicon, remote-piloted aircraft, optionally-piloted aircraft, remote control aircraft, drones (in the technical sense), etc,etc…

The more that we treat UAS as something special, the harder we make it employ properly and integrate them in to our airspace. Do we really need Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle or UCAV, or would unmanned combat aircraft suffice? …and unmanned fighter, unmanned bomber, unmanned transport etc? Hmmm…


Just call me Al