A drone flying over King's Beach.
A drone flying over King's Beach. Warren Lynam

Helicopter pilot warns of drone dangers after close call

WHETHER you call them drones, unmanned aerial vehicles or remotely piloted aircraft, their growing popularity with amateur operators is making at least one rescue helicopter pilot nervous.

Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter chief pilot Paul Gibson could not believe his eyes when he came across footage on YouTube taken by a drone flying above one of their helicopters on a routine surf patrol around Pt Cartwright.

The helicopter was flying at 200 feet (61m), the standard altitude for surf patrols, meaning the UAV was probably flying within the legal limit of 400 (122m) feet enforced by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

But it does not take a large stretch of the imagination to realise what the outcome might have been should the helicopter pilot have had to suddenly bank or gain altitude to respond to an emergency call.

"When we came across that footage a few months ago, we did forward that to CASA and it was the subject of one of our internal safety alerts," Mr Gibson said.

"It's a growing issue and it's certainly a concern.

"You only have to Google UAVs and you will find worldwide instances of interactions with not only helicopters but other aircraft."

Mr Gibson said it was "not beyond the realms of possibility" that a rescue helicopter or smaller aircraft could crash as a result of interference from a UAV.

"Some of these UAVs are quite large and although our helicopters are a reasonable size, it is certainly a safety concern," he said.

Sunshine Coast Airport general manager Peter Pallot said although he had not yet encountered problems with amateur UAV operators near the airfield, it was an emerging issue for the aviation industry.

"This is a new and evolving issue," he said.

"The concerns are not about the professional users of UAVs as they are well regulated by the industry, it is more for the amateurs who might get them as presents and might want to test fly them not just around our airport, but any airport around the country.

"There is a very valuable and very worthwhile industry in UAVs but when they are used by amateurs who don't understand the rules they can cause major safety risks."

Mr Pallot said with high-performance UAVs becoming cheaper and more readily available to the public, he would welcome any move to boost public education.

"The aviation authorities did a great job with education when lasers began causing problems for the industry, so maybe they could look at something similar to that," he said.

CASA corporate communications manager Peter Gibson said the organisation was updating the rules covering the use of commercial RPAs and changes to the rules and guidance material would be issued in 2016.

"A full review of all drone rules will be conducted in coming years," he said.

"One of the main changes will be the introduction of an under-2kg category for commercial RPAs.

"These RPAs will no longer need a certificate from CASA, although they would need to be registered."

With nearly 300 approved commercial operators on the books and 100 more applications in the pipeline, Mr Gibson said the industry was growing in Australia.

"CASA has a set of safety rules for recreational drones. These are enforced when appropriate," he said.

"CASA does and will investigate breaches of the rules and penalties can be issued of up to $8500.

"Certainly all commercial operators must know and fly according to the rules.

"We believe our 'flying with control' point of sale handout is reaching most recreational users. Plus several manufacturers put them in the packaging."

At the moment, recreational UAV operators have a simple set of guidelines:

  • Stay at least 30 metres away from people with your drone.
  • Keep your drone under 400 feet (121.92m).
  • You may not operate your drone above a large gathering of people
  • You must keep your drone within sight.
  • You may not operate your drone within 5km of an airport and a place where planes take off or land from.

Detailed information is at http://www.casa.gov.au.

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