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Urgent review needed: Pilot Union to push CAA on drone regulation and education

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Events concerning drone use, including cases of near misses between drones and helicopters in heavily populated tourist areas, have led the New Zealand Air Line Pilot’s Association (NZALPA) to ramp up support for stronger regulation in New Zealand.

The burgeoning use of drones, or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), by companies, local enthusiasts and tourists to New Zealand has been a popular story for national media and included television interviews last month with NZALPA President Tim Robinson calling for urgent action. 

Globally the growth of these devices has been phenomenal. In the US alone some 29,000 RPAS ‘pilots’ have been certified since August 2016. Their size can vary from below 250g to the size of an airliner. They operate from a few feet above the ground to thousands of feet above it. They can operate from within feet of the operator to across continents.

“A review of New Zealand rules are much overdue,” Robinson said. 

“NZALPA has advocated for such a review since the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) RPAS rules came into force back in 2015.

“Currently they offer little or no protection to either other RPAS users or the public. As in Australia – they are woefully inadequate. They neither accurately identify current or emerging risks, nor offer a sound framework for the safe operation of these devices.”

A remit to the 2017 NZALPA Annual Conference in June will be put forward in order to formalise the union’s concerns around use of RPAS. The remit will be used to form NZALPA’s official policy on Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) development in New Zealand – a policy Robinson assures will not inhibit the industry’s ability to develop new technologies and consistently innovate. 

“The government continues to promote New Zealand as a country in which RPAS devices, such as drones, are viewed as innovative and governed by a flexible regulatory framework,” Robinson said.

“Development and experimentation are actively encouraged and this has already attracted global players, with the New Zealand CAA Director saying that he will allow RPAS operations to fly without the restrictions currently in place for conventional aircraft.”

But the associated rules or rule parts (CAR101/102) have now been in place since 2015, a time when flexibility was said to suit the rapid development of RPAS.

“These were to be reviewed after 12 months, but we are only just seeing signs of this happening now.

“NZALPA is calling for tighter regulation, which would include the registration of devices and the application of the rules currently being followed by conventional manned flights, or those providing equivalent levels of safety to be applied to their operation.”

Last month, police dealt with illegal drone use near a West Coast heliport, creating what police described as ‘huge risk’.

Police also issued a warning to drone users after a man was seen flying a drone up to 400m high in the airspace over Franz Josef's Glacier Country Heliport. 

Franz Josef Police said the concerned heliport manager reported the drone to police as it was hovering directly over the landing pads.  The man, believed to be a tourist, had no knowledge of the controlled airspace or rules regarding the operation of drones. He had also not sought permission from the property owner.

Those breaking the rules could be fined up to $35,000.

Tim Robinson said that the industry and CAA needed to work quickly on updating the regulations and communicating these widely, particularly with the speed of development of drone-based consumer technology and the tourist numbers coming into New Zealand continuing to grow.

“NZALPA remains willing and able to work with all stakeholders on the challenges faced by New Zealand in the introduction and operation of these devices – providing for their safe use – and ultimately integration into our airspace,”  Robinson said.  

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