Flying lessons for an amateur from a feathered expert

Commercial drone pilots are trained to plan and risk assess but I’m not sure how I would take into account the unexpected and amazing encounter this week as I was taking photos in a rural location in Dorset.  There I was, bimbling nicely along on a surprisingly sunny afternoon, getting some lovely slanting-light photos, when on the far corner of the monitor screen I saw something climbing very, very quickly out of the tree line and up to my drone.

In seconds it was at my aircraft’s height, wings outstretched, pulling a lovely aerobatic move as it braked and reversed direction.  It was over in a flash and I am in absolutely awe of the bird’s speed and agility – if anybody can tell me what brand of bird (not good on wildlife), I’d be very interested to know.  Some kind of hawk?

I’m quite relieved it decided not to take a chunk out of the drone although it would make for an interesting insurance claim and a good pub story, if nothing else. I can’t help feeling that the bird, hellbent on intercepting the intruder in its territory, got up to height and just thought ‘amateur’ before peeling away.  I salute a superior aviator!


Jingle Drones! All I want for Christmas is…a crash helmet?

Interesting Evening Standard piece recently on the surging popularity of drones, which claims that one in four consumers is set to buy a drone as a Christmas gift this year.

That would, apparently, put an estimated 1.5 million aircraft into the skies above our unprotected heads.  JJRC even produce a drone-borne Father Christmas, pictured. Rudolf and friends must be gutted.

This is quite mind-boggling and I can’t help feeling it’s going to end in tears somewhere, as bare flesh meets whirling rotor blades on Christmas Day.  A whole new category for Accident and Emergency, and a nice change for hard-pressed doctors and nurses from the recent spate of drink-related adult trampolining injuries. Whatever adult trampolining is.

The Evening Standard piece was prompted by the Civil Aviation Authority issuing safety calls and warnings, and the UK government’s very welcome announcement of a crackdown on drone activity and tougher regulation.  While professional drone pilots and their association ARPAS have welcomed the moves, the chatter on drone pilot forums has mostly been focused on how this might be enforced. Particularly if the UK’s consumer drone fleet is getting into the millions.

The authorities’ primary concern was ensuring the safety of passenger aircraft – there have been a number of near-misses reported between airliners and drones and there is plenty of YouTube footage from half-witted drone users proving they are flying far too close to airports and air traffic.  That’s an appalling risk and rightly has focused minds.

But I’m curious that very few people have focused on risk to limb, rather than life, given that drones are something of a cross between a flying lawnmower and a laptop – sharp whirling blades and electronic controls that are not always as predictable as they might be.

My guess is the risk to Aunty Mabel’s extremities, rather than to EasyJet flights, might be more imminent – one minute she’s sipping her annual sherry and watching the Queen’s Speech in an afterglow of turkey and sprouts. Next she is struck down by a drone launched by her once-favourite nephew across the living room and wondering where her little finger tip has gone.

The Daily Mail will love it – and their rabid writers might even do the drone industry a favour with some righteous indignation and some ‘Why oh why is this happening?’ headlines.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. For Mabel’s sake and for me – the last thing I need is to be applauding any campaign by the loathsome Daily Mail.

But increasingly the chatter among weary professional drone pilots is that the industry needs a tragedy to wake people up to the risks.  I’ve seen some encouraging signs – the regulatory news might give more responsible parents pause for thought. But if the numpty-parent-to-responsible-parent ratio is even 1:10, that’s still an awful lot of airborne missiles in the wrong place,  at the wrong time and heading for the wrong EasyJet flight or nearest Aunty Mabel.

I have to confess to recently buying a drone for the young son of some friends. Hilarious piece of kit and great fun – but it’s a tiny indoor aircraft, with protected rotor blades and so light it barely registers in the hand. It would struggle to fly outdoors.

So my hot Christmas tip is, avoid the public parks and beaches on Boxing Day. Unless you are wearing a crash helmet. And keep looking skywards…if only for Aunty Mabel.

Jingle Bells!

PS – I’d really like a drone-borne Father Christmas if anyone is stuck for present ideas!


The biggest innovation in drones is insurance. Yes, really

…Okay, so I used the ‘I’ word but don’t click away just yet. Give it a chance.  I attended the Commercial UAV Show yesterday at Excel in London and enjoyed seeing a wealth of innovation, excitement and plain unbridled enthusiasm for this most amazing industry.

The capabilities of new drones continue to astonish – increased range, all-weather operation, miniaturised LIDAR kit, pollution sniffers. Drones that take off vertically and transition into level flight,  caged drones to operate safely indoors, and a vast array of new or improved software, particularly in the surveying sector for industry and agriculture.

The diversity on show was impressive. Alongside such big guns as YuneecLufthansa, and Airbus, there were smaller niche innovators such as AlphaGeo’s Wingtra and my own favourite of the show, the hugely capable prototype Sky Mantis (feature panel, above) from Evolve Dynamics.  I think this is one to watch and I hope we should be hearing more of in early 2018.

But alongside the glitzy craft – some fascinating fixed-wing drones, including the remarkable one used by the British Antarctic Survey (left) – one welcome development stood out for me: some long-overdue creative thinking and competition in the drone insurance sector.

Don’t fall asleep now. Keep going, it might be worth it. It might even save you money.

Flock, the new kid on the drone insurance block, was there in (vibrant yellow) force with its pay-as-you-fly product. App-based, this allows any commercial drone pilot to insure a flight only when he or she needs to fly.

With conventional insurance policies mired in the past with fixed annual payments and irritating admin fees to alter cover on an ad-hoc basis, this could be a breath of fresh air for smaller operators looking to minimise operating costs and work more flexibly. It also allows the pilot to dial up or down the all-important liability cover essential to protect clients, the public and property.

Plug in your details, specify your drone, where you are flying, and the Flock app calculates a one-off premium for that flight, taking into consideration weather and airspace conditions, while generating policy documents that can be shared with clients.

Sounds ideal but it’s not all plain flying. The element of uncertainty might deter some – I asked what happened if the weather data showed unflyable conditions but the actual location was sheltered (as happened to me recently) and it proved safe to fly. ‘Would the app refuse to insure me?”No, you will always be insured but the price will go up’.  Bring your piggy bank and smash open in emergency…? I’ll be interested to hear in-the-field experiences from drone pilots with this app.

That aside, I think Flock, who are underwritten by Germany’s Allianz, should be applauded for a product that may help both drone operators and their clients reduce costs, and most likely improve drone safety – always a good thing.  It will be offered to hobby drone pilots soon too.

Intriguingly it appears to have sparked some welcome competition.

Not to be outdone, and possibly in response to Flock’s initiative, the old-ish kid on the block Coverdrone said they were launching a similar on-demand insurance product, web-based and due out in December.  It too would offer the facility to dial up or down the insurance cover needed by a client or the specific job. Coverdrone will be a hard act to beat – they also offer more comprehensive insurance policies and have an established reputation for service. But it’s good to see them responding to Flock and others in the insurance sector.

I admit I may have exaggerated with ‘biggest innovation’ at the show – more a modest spark in creativity.  But it’s good to see insurers, a notoriously cautious bunch at best, embracing the innovative and creative thinking that distinguishes our industry.


Edible drones, mental health, and a welcome charity mugging

…I really love the more positive press stories coming through about drones – blood deliveries in Africa, medicine drops in conflict zones, wildlife monitoring for conservation purposes, search and rescue, to name but a few. There is some very clever lateral thinking going on around drones – but the one that really made me sit up was the edible drone for famine areas, which is currently in development by Windhorse Aero in Somerset, just up the road.

It’s hugely encouraging to see people’s minds turn to humanitarian and compassionate uses for drones, when you could be forgiven for thinking that drone development is focused on death, destruction, or delivery by Amazon.

Ten years in the charity sector, protecting and promoting the reputation of the rather lovely Royal National Lifeboat Institution,  gave me a startling insight into how tough it is to raise funds for good causes, even in a country which is hugely enthusiastic about charity giving and instills that ethos from a very early age in schools.

Dorset Mind logoSo I was happy to lend a helping hand to Dorset Mind, an independent provider of mental health services across Dorset who offer support to anyone in the county facing mental health problems and help foster mental wellbeing.

Dorchester businessman David Upshall, owner of a financial and insurance company, got in a quick and crafty charity mugging on the phone while we were discussing the potential for drones in the property sector recently. ‘Would I care to help out Dorset Mind and donate something droney to a charity auction event?’ He might not have used the word ‘droney’, in fairness, but you get the idea.

Choosing a charity to support is an intensely personal thing and can have many motivations. And like many, I will admit to struggling with what can seem like endless demands from charities, however justifiable and laudable their aims.  It’s not so much ‘compassion fatigue’ – an awful phrase and so dismissive of potential donors – as financial fatigue and information overload.

But I was very glad to say yes in this instance – mental health is an area close to my heart and even closer to my mind.Dorset Mind charity auction

In my 25-year career across journalism, corporate public relations and the charity sector I have seen many colleagues and friends suffer mental health issues in a myriad of forms. The effects ranged from mild to utterly devastating, both for the person with the issues and for those around that person.

I had my own brief brush with depression several years ago as things simply ‘got a bit too much’ in a perfect storm of exhaustion, illness, and overwork. I was fortunate to receive some excellent support and recovered well. But it gave me great appreciation for those trying to help others in this underfunded sector.

So hopefully, next Wednesday 9 November, people will dig deep for Dorset Mind at David’s charity auction in Dorchester. I have a sneaky feeling that my offer of an aerial photography session will not be the star lot – hard to compete with the chance of lunch with Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes or your very own personalised Town Cryer message.

But I am glad to be doing ‘my bit’, however modest, and I am quietly amused that running a drone business has led me back down the charity path.


Bullet the Blue Sky…

.50 cal ammunition box used for batteries

It’s always a talking point – the moment a client sees me hoist an ammunition box cheerily out of the boot of my car, followed by a number of sinister metal travelling cases which look suspiciously like Jason Bourne’s hand luggage.

You can’t blame them for the raised eyebrows – drones have their darker sides and an even darker press. ’.50 cal ammunition?’ the more knowledgeable ones ask, eyeing the box, and probably wondering how to get granny and the kids into a safe place.

But this ammunition box is all about safety and containing risk, not facilitating death and destruction. Drones need batteries. Big brutes of batteries which hold massive amounts of mischievous energy, which is just dying to get out into the wider world in a very short time indeed.

Mostly these electrical hooligans behave themselves if handled and charged properly. At Flying Colours our DJI M200 and Phantom 4 Pro drones use ‘intelligent’ batteries, which regulate themselves to a degree to ensure they are safer in storage.

But a quick search on YouTube will yield plenty of examples of lithium polymer batteries going up in smoke and, even more alarmingly, people putting themselves in danger trying to contain an intense chemical fire – don’t try this at home, kids.

Hence the ammo boxes for the batteries – no technology is failsafe. So should the worst happen, the steel box should help contain the flames and limit damage and injury.

Ammo box containing drone batteries

I have thought about painting the boxes a lovely reassuring pink or hiding the cryptic yellow military specification with a Disney sticker. But I’ve actually found they can create a useful opportunity to discuss how safety is paramount in drone operations – or should be.

Among other precautions, I always have a fire extinguisher, fire blanket and fire gloves to hand, and if you hire a commercial drone pilot, I hope you see them do this. Fire and first aid safety box

Whoever you hire, it’s worth asking them about their safety measures and risk assessment before they start whizzing around near you, your loved ones and your property with something that is a cross between a glitchy laptop and a lawnmower, whirling blades and all.

Also check they are CAA qualified and equipped with public liability insurance, as they must be if you are paying them.

If you’re unsure about your drone pilot, DroneSafeRegister is a good place to find qualified, insured, safe professionals.

I am pretty confident that most will, in all likelihood, not be carrying live ammunition. Stay safe!

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