In February 2021, a drone pilot in Auckland was slapped with a $1,000 fine after he crashed his drone into a trainee paraglider. The conviction was the first of its kind in New Zealand. Now, that pilot is appealing the sentence, saying the conviction would gravely affect his future career prospects.
The crash happened at Karioitahi Beach in February 2018 when Davy Binois’s glider’s lines were struck by a drone while 100 meters up in the air. While Binois managed to land unharmed, he was shaken up by the experience and ended up suing the drone pilot, saying:
Anybody can fly a drone and the worst thing that can happen to them is their drone gets damaged. They’ve got both feet on the ground. It’s not quite the same if something goes wrong for planes, hang gliders, and paragliders.
When the case went to trial, Judge Mina Wharepouri found pilot Ashley Pitman to be overtly reliant on the drone monitor while tracking the machine, rather than keeping the drone within his direct visual line of sight.
New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Act requires a drone to give way to crewed aircraft, including planes, helicopters, and paragliders. And a drone pilot is also supposed to land the machine immediately, should another aircraft approach.
Asserting that Pitman should have appreciated his flying might pose a hazard to others in the air sharing the same airspace as his drone, Wharepouri labeled the mid-air drone crash “deceptively dangerous” and convicted Pitman.
The case became the first conviction in New Zealand for a crash between a drone and a manned aircraft.
According to Pitman’s lawyer, Michael Lloyd:
If you are applying for a contract as a filmmaker and you have a conviction… even if the work doesn’t involve using the equipment… it’s not a good look. The conviction would greatly impact Pitman’s mental health and career.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, argue that what happened was neither a “freak accident,” nor was the drone being used for filmmaking on the day of the collision. As prosecutor Chris Macklin says:
He went to the beach, flew off without noticing air traffic close by, and on his second battery he then was unlucky enough to collide with a paraglider… the real nut of it is that failure to keep aware. Because of failure to keep watch… the offending was very, very serious.
The court has reserved decision on the matter.
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