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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Trusting technology?

10 January 2018

Airways is the organisation in New Zealand which administers and manages the airspace above our heads.

They provide air-traffic control systems, manage the NOTAM system and provide a raft of other services for airspace users such as commercial airlines and recreational pilots.

Recently, Airways has started playing around with traffic management for drones (unmanned aircraft) and I don't think things are going too well for them.

Just a couple of weeks ago I predicted problems in this area and now it appears as if my concerns have been proven right.

Airways has been pressing drone operators to use a smartphone app called Airmap.

In this press release, dated 13 December 2017, Airways extol the virtues of the Airmap app and point to the way that it will keep drone operators up to date on the presence of other airspace users so that they can stay safe and avoid conflict.

Fantastic eh?

Imagine that... you can whip out your smartphone, fire up the Airmap app and, within seconds, be given a green or red light on whether it's okay to fly in your present location.

No risk of encountering unexpected manned air traffic or violating the regulations by perhaps flying too close to a listed airfield or controlled airspace. This app is supposed to take all the guesswork out of flying your drone.

Okay, although it works throughout New Zealand, Airways has focused on the area around Queenstown/Wanaka in the South Island for a three month trial so I probably can't complain that when I tried the app it gave me a red flag even though I have every legal right to fly here at Tokoroa Airfield.

However, it did raise my concern level that this app might give users a bum-steer, and by doing so, effectively increase the risk level rather than reduce it. I mentioned my concerns in a video posted to YouTube back on the 3rd of January. My concern was that unless the information provided by such an app was 100% accurate and up to date, people could act on bad information in good faith and end up in big trouble -- or worse.

Well it didn't take long for this fear to be proven... just days in fact.

Most readers will already be aware of the case where a Chilean tourist was arrested at Wanaka for flying his drone near helicopters that were fighting a wildfire (story link)

Now few facts are in the public domain at this stage and reports are all a bit sketchy but I believe Mr Cruz says he wasn't anywhere near close enough to pose a risk to the helicopters. This may or may not be true but let's face it -- he was a bit of a numpty for flying *anywhere* even remotely close to such an operation, regardless of the safety implications.

However, in the wake of this story received a very interesting email from someone who has further information that may be pertinent to this case.

Apparently the much promoted Airmap app, being promoted by Airways as providing "realtime" information on other aircraft movements in your location" doesn't actually do this at all.

According to my informant, the Airmap app doesn't even download NOTAMs from Airways and present time to app users.

So, if Mr Cruz was using the app then he wouldn't have been informed that there was probably a NOTAMed exclusion around the fire-fighting operation. If he'd fired up the app he may well have been given a green light to fly -- yet he still finds himself facing as much as a 14-year jail term for endangering aircraft.

This, as I said in my original video, is CRAP!

If Airways is going to promise that an app will "access real–time information about other aircraft in the area, allowing them to stay safely separated" and it does no such thing then why aren't they also sitting before a judge and being charged with contributory negligence?

The bottom line is: do not rely on the promises of bureaucrats or the supposed functionality of technology when your liberty and other people's lives are on the line -- at least not until such a system has been thoroughly proven.

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