Rogue drone grounds aerial firefighters tackling blaze

written by Adam Thorn | August 27, 2020
Fire at Hillview a property to the north of Adelaide River on the Stuart Highway in 2010 (Wikicommons Ken Hodge)
A fire is tackled by aerial firefighers in a similar area in 2010, to the north of Adelaide River in the NT (Wikicommons Ken Hodge)

A rogue drone caused firefighting planes and helicopters to be grounded as they battled to contain a blaze threatening homes in a small Northern Territory town.

The pilot of the device, which was flying in the Humpty Doo area on Tuesday at 2pm, has yet to be charged but remains under investigation, according to state police.

Later on Thursday morning, Andrew Turner, chief fire control officer at Bushfires NT, told the ABC emergency services were facing “probably the worst fire weather we would have faced in the last 10 years”.

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NT Police superintendent Daniel Shean said the drone could have prevented firefighters from containing the blaze and urged owners to follow current regulations that specifically prohibits a drone being flown in a way that could be hazardous to an aircraft, or higher than 120 metres above ground level.

“It is really, really important that anyone that owns a drone complies with CASA legislation and does not fly a drone, over any area… operating in an emergency situation,” Shean told NT News.

“It might be excellent footage one might think but in terms of ensuring our fire appliances are doing their job safely, they can’t do it if the drones are flying around.”

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The fire at Humpty Doo, a small commuter town situated 40 kilometres from Darwin, is thought to have been caused by a spark from a lawn-mower that caught fire.

Fires have been exacerbated by low humidity and fierce winds of up to 60 kilometres.

Back in April, Australian Aviation reported how the number of ‘near encounters’ between drones and manned aircraft has doubled in three years – with 194 such occurrences in 2019, up from just 87 in 2016.

The rise in reported cases is likely due to the explosion in drone ownership, with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau now estimating there are at least 50,000, and possibly hundreds of thousands, of remote piloted crafts in Australia.

While one has yet to cause an accident, the numbers will raise concerns that a more dangerous incident in future is inevitable. In Canada in 2017, for instance, a drone hit a commercial aircraft and damaged its wing, while in the UK a device flew directly over the wing of an Airbus 319 coming into land at London Gatwick.

Earlier this month, CASA appealed to the public to find a “rogue” drone that was spotted flying close to an aircraft as it was approaching to land at Sydney Airport.

The plane’s pilots spotted the one-metre device from the cockpit at about 1,200 metres on Monday, 20 July.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority said the object was described as blue and possibly a quadcopter type – meaning it has four rotors. It was spotted in the Granville/North Parramatta area between 2pm and 3pm.

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