When Drones attack. Triathlete discovers the hazards of drones in public spaces

Injured Athlete with Drone. The West Australian

In what may become an increasingly common occurrence, a drone that was being used to film the Endure Batavia Triathlon in Geraldton, Western Australia, seemingly lost control and crashed into runner Raijer Ogden, injuring her sufficiently to require hospitalisation.

Warren Abrams, the owner of the drone, later claimed that the vehicle had been “hacked” by someone “channel hopping”. He even suggested that this was possible for someone to do using a mobile phone. It is far more likely however that if the cause of the crash was due to interference to the signal between the controller and the vehicle, that this was caused by the environment the drone was being flown in rather than someone deliberately trying to jam the signal.

The type of drone being used by Abrams is radio controlled using radio frequencies commonly in the 2.5 GHz range. There are quite a few devices that operate in that range including the WiFi from mobile phones. Usually however, these devices would have to be close to the receivers on the vehicle to have any sort of effect. There are reported instances of interference with drone control signals from things like mobile phone towers that could cause sufficient loss of contact between the controller and the vehicle to cause a crash.

To deliberately hijack the drone however would require someone with a similar controller overriding the controls that Abrams’ team was using - which seems a more implausible scenario. Cheaper consumer drones operate by using WiFi from mobile phones and again it is possible to disrupt the communications between phone and vehicle but you need to [fly close] to the drone with the device that is disrupting the connection.

The other possibility is that the crash was simply due to operator error. It is not clear who was actually operating the drone at the time but on Abrams’ Facebook page, it is his daughter, 19-year-old Coraleigh Abrams and a fellow employee, Jordan Smith, also 19, who normally operate the drones.

New Era Ag Tech - the Drone Operators with the drone that caused the accident.

The drone itself is likely to be the DJIF550 hexacopter pictured below which is a popular hobbyist hexcopter. If used for commercial purposes however, the operators are required to certify with the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). It does not appear that Abrams or any of the organisations he runs are listed as certified operators, a view confirmed by the Australian Certified UAV Operators group. This has been denied by Abrams but he has still not been able to provide proof of his certification when questioned by journalists. CASA is now investigating the incident but have not said whether the drones were being operated illegally.

Hexcopter DJIF550.

Drone crashes are not that uncommon. Last year a drone crashed into an audience at an event in the US injuring 4 people. In another incident, a drone crashed with the attached camera revealing that the owner had been filming people covertly.

Video caption here.

Clearly the drone in this incident should not have been flying within 30m of people and should have been flown by certified operators. As drone technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, the risks of these types of accidents will become greater. In the case of this race, it was the organisers who were partially to blame for allowing a possibly unlicensed operator to film the event. However, given the newness of the technology, the thought that this type of activity is regulated would not necessarily have been known to them. Unfortunately, common sense didn’t kick in as a safeguard.