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‘Electromagnetic interference’ behind Darling Harbour drone crash

written by Adam Thorn | June 23, 2022

Recorded flight data of the incident flight (ATSB)

Electromagnetic interference caused a drone to smash through a hotel window in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, injuring one person inside.

The final ATSB investigation into the incident, which took place in January last year, revealed the pilot lost control of the device before it shattered the window.

The only person in the room then sustained “minor injuries” from the “flying glass” before the drone came to a rest on the balcony below.

“It’s important RPA pilots ensure they are familiar and well drilled in emergency procedures, as well as being proficient in all flight modes,” said the ATSB’s director of transport safety, Stuart Macleod.

Macleod added that during an RPA flyaway, there may only be a few seconds in which a pilot can take avoiding action.

“In the event of a compass failure, switching to the fully manual attitude flight mode may assist regaining control of the RPA,” he said.

The ATSB report revealed that on 15 January 2021, the DJI Inspire 2 was being used for aerial photography and videography above Cockle Bay in Darling Harbour, Sydney.

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Shortly after take-off, the RPA unexpectedly accelerated away from the pilot and became unresponsive to control inputs. It accelerated to its maximum speed and, a short time later, collided with the window of a hotel adjacent to Darling Harbour.

The RPA shattered the window but did not penetrate it. A person inside the hotel received minor injuries from flying glass, and the RPA was destroyed.

The investigation found the compass of the RPA failed due to electromagnetic interference during flight, leading to the fly-away.

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“Occurrence data reported to the ATSB indicates RPA fly-away occurrences are not rare,” ATSB Director Transport Safety Stuart Macleod said.

In the four years from 2017 to 2020, 94 occurrences of partial or complete loss of transmission and/or reception of digital information from an RPA were reported to the ATSB.

The majority of these occurrences resulted in damage to either the aircraft, property, or both.

Following a review of the occurrence, the RPA’s manufacturer, DJI, updated the user manuals for a number of its products, including the Inspire 2.

The changes provide additional guidance to users regarding the use of the fully manual attitude flight mode in the event of compass interference.

Although not contributory to this occurrence, the ATSB investigation also found the pilot did not follow the operator’s emergency procedures or comply with the regulator’s operational permissions to fly in restricted airspace.

“Adhering to operational guidelines and limitations remains important for ensuring the safe operation of RPAs,” Macleod said.

“This is particularly true in populated areas, where risks are potentially elevated.”

In 2020, Australian Aviation reported how the number of ‘near encounters’ between drones and manned aircraft doubled in three years.

Figures released by the ATSB showed there were 194 such occurrences in 2019, up from just 87 in 2016. This, though, coincides with a rise in drone ownership.

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