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Every man and his dog are talking about drones these days.
It's hard to open a newspaper or log onto a news website without pictures of these small remotely-piloted or autonomous vehicles appearing before your eyes.
The USA have been using UAVs in dangerous combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan for many years now and it is easy to see the sense in keeping the meatballs away from risky environments.
Unfortunately, as aviation regulators around the world are quickly discovering, flying these craft in more "friendly skies" is posing some real challenges.
How on earth do you ensure that aircraft with pilots and passengers don't collide with these unmanned varieties -- with potentially lethal consequences?
Here in NZ, the CAA has set up some basic regulations that cover the deployment of UAS (unmanned aerial systems) weighing 25Kg or more.
These regulations are embryonic and will no doubt be revised and altered as the drone market evolves and changes.
Because of the uncertainty in respect to regulation and the capital cost involved, most of those who most need these drones here in NZ are presently without them.
Police, Search & Rescue, Civil Defense and others who could make very good use of these craft are all sitting on the sidelines -- waiting for some kind of legislation under which they could legally operate them.
At the very bottom end of the drone ladder we have RC model aircraft, helicopters and multi-rotors. These craft can be flown around by a pilot who simply uses his own unaided eyes to guide them.
These craft can (and often do) carry payloads including small HD cameras which often allow for some stunning "broadcast quality" video and stills to be captured from aspects that could not be achieved by any other method.
Others in the hobby have fitted "live video" feeds from these craft and use video-goggles to fly them from a "pilot's eye" perspective, an aspect of the hobby called FPV (first-person view).
The capabilities of modern RC and video equipment mean that when a craft is thus equipped, it is quite capable of flying significant distances -- well beyond the normal line of sight.
Thanks to falling prices and a vibrant online marketplace, the number of people enjoying this aspect of the RC hobby is growing at a very healthy rate -- which means that right now, there are hundreds of "drones" in private hands, all over the country.
So long as they're flown within visual range, at least 4Kms away from an airport, flown only for sport/recreational purposes, and remain under 400 feet altitude, they're quite legal to own and fly.
However, as soon as you use them for a non-sport/recreational purpose, they appear to fall foul of CAA's "policy" on UAS. I've seen no clarification as to how "policy" differs from "regulation" and there are no specific regulations that forbid these sub-25Kg UASes but apparently "policy" does forbid their use.
But lets get pragmatic for a moment.
Let's assume that we have another large natural disaster which creates a Civil Defence emergency.
Perhaps it's another big quake in a populous center, maybe Ngauruhoe really blows its top, maybe there are some vicious floods that sweep people and houses away.
In the aftermath of such an event, there will be occasions when a remotely piloted drone with onboard video equipment will become invaluable to those attempting to locate survivors and coordinate rescues.
If the air is filled with volcanic ash then no full-sized aircraft is going to be able to fly -- but electric powered drones can!
So what am I doing?
Well I've decided to create an Amateur Drone Register that would contain the contact details of those keen RC fliers who have suitable craft and skills to lend a hand when called upon to do so.
Think about it...
Without having to spend a penny of public money, groups such as the Police, Search & Rescue, Red Cross, Civil Defence and others, would have almost immediate access to drones that could play a valuable role in helping to save lives.
The other proposed bonus of such a register is that it would effectively raise the "street cred" of those who enjoy this aspect of the hobby -- promoting them to a valuable public resource that can be called on in times of emergency -- just like the Ham radio operators of the nation.
I have already contacted Civil Defence to see if they're interested and received an acknowledgment. Let's hope they have their heads screwed on properly. Who knows, the lives these drones could save might include yours -- or those of your family.
What do you think?
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