Drone plunge ruffles feathers for Doc

By Vaughan Elder

Department of Conservation ranger Lyndon Perriman holds a no-fly zone sign that has been installed after a drone crashed near an albatross nesting site. Photo: Gerard O'Brien/ODT
Department of Conservation ranger Lyndon Perriman holds a no-fly zone sign that has been installed after a drone crashed near an albatross nesting site. Photo: Gerard O'Brien/ODT

A drone crashing in a royal albatross nesting area at Taiaroa Head has raised concerns about the ''catastrophic'' results should one collide with a threatened bird.

Department of Conservation ranger Lyndon Perriman said the drone was found within 5m of a potential nesting site last Thursday. Drone-flying was becoming an increasing problem at the colony.

The drone was being mobbed by red-billed gulls when it was found, which suggested it might have been taken out of the air moments earlier by a gull which thought it was a predator, Mr Perriman said.

The issue was a concern because drones could cause ''mass disturbance'' after being mistaken as aerial predators by the threatened species or cause serious damage to a bird if there was a collision.

''These drones are 3 or 4 kilos so the impact of one of those on any of the wildlife here would be catastrophic to the bird that it hit.''

The crash also could have resulted in the female bird abandoning the closest potential nesting site to the observatory.

The crash came at the most ''sensitive time'' for royal albatrosses as they were just returning from months at sea.

''While they haven't established nests yet, this is the time where any sort of disturbance could be enough to get them to fly off and leave the area.''

The crash was one of at least two occurrences of visitors flying drones in the last week.

On Tuesday Mr Perriman asked a Chinese tourist to land her drone.

He was keen to emphasise people had a responsibility to be aware of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules before flying a drone and called on people to give ''a little thought'' to the consequences of flying one at a site where between 3000 and 4000 seabirds were based.

As a result of the two recent incidents, the Otago Peninsula Trust had erected temporary signs in the car park stating drones were not allowed in the area. Permanent signs are to be erected soon.

Royal Albatross Centre visitor host Ashleigh Compton said the day before the drone crashed some people approached a staff member asking if they could fly a drone.

Despite being told drone flying was not allowed, it seemed they flew it anyway.

A member of the public, Brynley Pearce, photographed a family, believed to be of Asian descent, flying a drone that afternoon.

It was not known if the family were the owners of the drone which crashed.

Mr Pearce was surprised to see them flying the drone, given the obvious threat it could pose to wildlife in the area.

Doc coastal Otago operations manager Annie Wallace said all aircraft, including drones, were not allowed to use the airspace above the Pukekura/Taiaroa Head albatross colony as they could disturb wildlife and were a hazard for visitors.

''We'd appreciate it if people could keep an eye out for drones in wildlife and inform Doc through the Doc hotline 0800 36 24 68,'' Ms Wallace said.

The crashed drone was a white and silver DJI Phantom 3 advanced model and was undamaged.

Ms Wallace said Doc was keen to educate visitors rather than pushing for prosecutions.

A CAA spokeswoman said penalties for flying a ''remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS)'' in restricted airspace without permission ranged from $1000 to $2500.

''There's no doubt the use [of RPAS] is becoming more popular, which increases the need for people operating these aircraft to make sure they're flying them safely and not putting people, wildlife, other aircraft or property at risk.''

''We'd also encourage people who have concerns about possible illegal operation of RPAS to contact the local police in the first instance.''

- Otago Daily Times

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