New Zealand Police in Scary Drone Scare

When I read “Police use drones to catch criminals“, I know it’s intended as a scary headline, but I just can’t get worked up about it.

You need to decipher a little jargon in the categories at Hobby King. RTF / PNF / ARF? It makes more sense if you know these mean “Ready to Fly”, “Plug-n-Fly” and “Almost Ready to Fly”. For example, this category lists the various multi-rotor vehicles that require only a few minutes of work to be up and flying.

The copters on that page range from tiny toys that have nowhere near the grunt to lift any sort of camera, through to this beast:

[box]The ZeroUAV YS-X6 autopilot is a tremendous flight controller system for multi-rotor aircraft supporting Android/IOS and PC systems, providing excellent auto-navigation, target lock, self-leveling and position/altitude holding. It is designed for both professional and hobby applications in commercial and industrial platforms.[/box]

Perhaps more interesting is this feature: Click any point on the Google Earth map on your ground station based smartphone or tablet and the YS-X6 will get your multi-rotor there.

Click any point on the Google Earth map on your ground station based smartphone or tablet and the YS-X6 will get your [drone] there.

The point I’m making is that this “scary drone” functionality is within reach of anyone with a small amount of cash. The US$1999 price is steep, but with a bit of research and coding you could build a similar platform for half the price. Is this a problem? Maybe.

I’ve been flying RC aircraft for more than 10 years. I presumed it was a highly technical hobby, requiring hours of practice at special clubs, official memberships, and arcane technical knowledge. Then I met a bunch of nice guys throwing cheap foam planes off Mt Wellington, here in Auckland. Over the next few months I learnt all the basics of RC flying, and – with an initial input of about $500 – was up and flying with my own glider.

Fast forward 10 years, add a huge amount of innovation in battery technology (yay Lithium Polymer!), electric motors (yay brushless!), and now I can send $100 to China and have a brand new electric model plane on my doorstep in a week. These planes are small, agile, and flyable in your local park.

FPV ShotWith costs this low and technology moving so fast, it was inevitable that hobbyists would take it to the next level. It started with sticking small, cheap cameras on their planes. Perhaps to record the flight and grab some aerial shots of your house. The next step was a down-link from that camera, with cheap 2.4GHz wireless video links boosted by amplifiers and large antennas.

Now we are firmly in the age of the “FPV” or “First Person View” hobby flying. Yes, Hobby King has a category for that too.

The question is, where do you draw the line between “hobby” and “omfg that’s scary”? Take this video for example. Is that Afghanistan or Iraq? Neither, it’s just some guys testing the range of their FPV hobby plane out to 7.4 km. It only looks sinister because we’ve been trained that the grainy view with an information overlay means we’re about to see an explosion and bodies flying.

The only real issue here is whether the fliers know their local airspace and laws, have a working air-band radio to listen to nearby planes, and have an autopilot and recovery plan if things go wrong. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, but the proliferation of long-range FPV flying means there are guaranteed to be some cowboys.

When I read “Police use drones to catch criminals“, I know it’s intended as a scary headline, but I just can’t get worked up about it. The use of hobby aircraft as described is just a logical evolution of technology. It’s no different to Police using their full sized helicopter to watch a drugs bust, or the local council using aerial photography to help with their surveys.

What do you think? Are you ok with police using drones in their work? What about some random guys flying out of your local cricket ground?

2 Replies to “New Zealand Police in Scary Drone Scare”

  1. I think it’s similar to the worries about Google Glass having a camera – a few of them aren’t going to make much difference, but once they proliferate it becomes a serious issue. Spot of nude sunbathing on your balcony? Caught short after a few beers and have to pop behind a bush? Applying ointment to heat rash in your bedroom and forget to close the curtains? How much of this stuff is going to start appearing on the internet with no thought to privacy or consequences? How soon before the first legal case where someone is fired because of a photo on the internet?

  2. Time to bump and comment on an old post I think! This FPV thing has me keen, although I’d like to operate within the laws especially when flying in airspace which is shared with many other commercial and personal craft. Example, I just acquired a hexacopter, running a 433mHz telemetry system, a 2.4Ghz radio system and hopefully a 5.8Ghz FPV system. This will net at least 1km of range, but can I even use that? The whole things cost less than $1000 (Thanks China!) but thats besides the point. CAA has an interest in these new “drones” but finding exact answers on the limitations and restrictions can be tricky.

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