A drone crash in a populated area, and a friendly reminder on drone safety

Gary Mortimer, the helicopter pilot who started the small UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) website sUASnews.com, recently found footage of a fairly spectacular accident involving a drone.

He links to a YouTube video out of downtown Auckland, showing someone operating a "heavy-lift" multirotor drone. Almost immediately after takeoff, the drone seems to veer off path. It continues to gain momentum until it smacks into a building.

The drone bounces off the skyscraper and falls to the concrete, and catches fire on the ground.

It's likely that the source of the fire was the drone's lithium polymer batteries. Remember that these drones operate on a very similar battery chemistry to electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt and Tesla cars, which do on a rare occasion catch fire. This shouldn't be viewed of as an inherent flaw in lithium batteries, cars or drones -- only simple physics that if you store a great deal of energy and release it as heat in a short period, it'll likely catch something on fire.

The real flaw here, as Mortimer writes, is abiding by a proper safety checklist.

"I have not flown this make of UA but some things I do know, the pilot appears not be sorting out yaw, right from take off," Mortimer notes. "An after take off control check would not have gone amiss. If you look closely at the video the airframe is yawing to the right even before take off."

Drone journalists would do well to familiarize themselves with their equipment and establish a preflight checklist. The DroneJournalism.org community also must abide by the code of ethics, which is listed here. The code states that journalists must be "adequately trained in the operation of his or her equipment," and that "The equipment itself must be in a condition suitable for safe and controlled flight."

We don't prescribe any specific preflight checklist due to the fact that there are a wide variety of UAS platforms available, each with a unique set of features and characteristics. We don't know the individual in this video, and we don't condone his actions. We only hope that this event will not serve as yet another reason for people to fear drones and drones used for journalism.

Drones are a powerful tool that can help improve public knowledge and awareness. As this video shows, drones can also be dangerous in the right hands. When operating a drone, remember that it's not just your reputation on the line -- it's the reputation of drone operators everywhere.

Posted on October 27, 2012 .