Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Drone operator who filmed Canterbury forest fire escapes conviction

Video taken by the drone showed that it was 'significantly above' the treetops. Photo / File
Video taken by the drone showed that it was 'significantly above' the treetops. Photo / File

A drone operator who flew in restricted air space and got within 120 metres of a helicopter preparing to fight a forest fire has today escaped a conviction.

Simon Roy Reeve, 38, had denied operating a Phantom 2 remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) in a controlled airspace last year at Pines Beach, near Kaiapoi during a forest fire.

The Kaiapoi man, who was the first person to be charged under new Civil Aviation Authority rules, also denied a charge of operating the aircraft on January 5 last year in a manner that "caused unnecessary endangerment to people".

In a ruling released in May, after a three-day judge-alone trial at Christchurch District Court, Reeve was found guilty on all charges.

But today Judge Gary MacAskill granted him a discharge without conviction after Reeve made a $500 donation to a child cancer charity.

Defence counsel Rupert Glover today said the case had caused a lot of interest, including a query from a Scottish legal academic.

Glover said he'd had a number of requests for the judge's sentencing notes and asked that they would be transcribed.

Judge MacAskill granted the application for a discharge without conviction and ordered his sentencing notes to be typed up and made available.

Outside court, Glover doubted that the discharge without conviction would set much of a legal precedent in New Zealand.

"The judge has made it very clear that he did not consider it a test case so the precedent value it will have is hard to say," he told the Herald.

"The discharge without conviction is obviously significant but it is facts specific so I don't know if it would really be a very good test case."

Reeve was also found guilty of illegally flying his drone in controlled air space at a January 20, 2015 fire, again at Pines Beach.

The trial heard that a helicopter had been flying in the area at the time and, soon after Reeve stopped flying, started fighting the fire with a monsoon bucket.

Reeve said he would have given way to the chopper if he had seen it and, if necessary, brought his drone down in a tree, the court heard.

He claimed that he had been flying below the treetops.

But a policeman at the scene, who gave evidence which was accepted, estimated the drone was about 1.5 times the height of the trees in altitude.

And a video taken by the drone showed that it was "significantly above" the treetops.

Helicopter pilot David Askin didn't know about the drone until he saw drone footage on the news that night, which angered him.

Judge MacAskill found that Reeve did cause danger to Askin and his helicopter, getting as close as 120m.

"It was possible that the RPAS and the helicopter would collide. That possibility was not so speculative or unreal as not to amount to a danger," he said.

The trial heard that TVNZ reporter Joy Reid spoke to Reeve while out reporting on the fire and had asked to use his footage, which he agreed to for a fee of $200.

She says at no point did they speak about Reeve having authorisation to fly the drone in the area.

The judge said Reeve had no reason for creating the danger beyond videoing the fire and the helicopter for his own interest, and perhaps, possible sale to news media.

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association (NZALPA) earlier welcomed the guilty verdicts.

NZALPA Senior Technical Officer Dave Reynolds said it was essential that government and stakeholders work together to integrate RPAS or drones safely into New Zealand airspace.

"Operators of these devices, no matter how small, need to fully understand the rules and their responsibilities," he said.

"Education is vital, as is operator responsibility, and this is why we are advocating for mandatory registration of all RPAS above 0.22kg (0.5lb) in weight, as is currently required in the USA.

"It is also NZALPA's view that large RPAS above 25kg (55lb) should be operated in accordance with the same or equivalent requirements applicable to other aircraft sharing the same airspace, including operator competency and medical standards."

- NZ Herald

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