March 20, 2014

A web-cam drone – being flown for a mine site aerial survey – came within 100m of colliding with a $200k  agricultural aircraft in Australia’s first “near miss” involving an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).
In a bulletin published yesterday, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) reported that in September 2013 an Ayres S2R crop duster had no visual identification of a remotely controlled drone “so small it can fit into a case the size of a carry-on bag” and failed to establish radio communication with its operator.

The aircraft commenced aerial agricultural operations on a property about 37 km south-southwest of Horsham aerodrome in Western Victoria at about the same time the drone was launched by hand at the nearby Echo mineral sands mine site.

The UAV operator heard the crop duster operating about 1-1.5 km away and broadcast on the Area Frequency advising his intention to conduct operations but received no response. After dumping his first load of fertilizer, the contractor pilot has relayed a message via the farm’s owner there was an ‘aircraft’ conducting photography over the mine.

The pilot did not realize the aircraft he needed to keep a look-out for, was a drone – with a wingspan of just 3′ – nor that it would be flying at the same low altitude. Becoming airborne for the next dump, the Ayres almost flew into the path of the UAV and came within about 100 m horizontally.

The pilot reported he never saw the drone.

The aerial survey drone deployed over the Echo mine is sold by Parrot senseFly. Parrot market a range of hobby drones popular in Australia, retailing from as little as $400. It is not available in the USA on the same basis, because FAA regulatory limitations exclude it there.

According to the ATSB: “This incident highlights the challenges associated with having a diverse mix of aircraft operating in the same airspace and the need for all pilots and operators to remain vigilant and employ see-and-avoid principles”.

Although an Australian first, there have been other near misses.

In March 2013, an Alitalia Boeing 777 arriving from Rome at JFK airport in New York was making its final approach when the pilot saw un unidentified UAV within 200 feet of the cockpit at an altitude of 1,750′, 3 miles out from the runway threshold.

The drone was close enough for the Italian pilot to be able to report that it was “a completely black quadcopter with a 3′ wingspan”.

Legal liability for a resulting crash would depend on various factors. It shows though that even a small UAV – and its operator –  could potentially be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for any such catastrophe, or many millions in a case like that of the Alitalia 777 in NYC.

Categories: Litigation & Law Practice , Aviation Law

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