Welcome to The Drone Zone
THEY’VE GONE FROM HUGELY expensive toys to useful tools in just a handful of years and soon drones will be doing far more tasks around the forest than we could ever imagine.
Think close-up machine inspections, crew observations, pre-harvest surveys, afterharvest surveys, aerial mapping, aerial spraying, delivering seedlings, laying out strawlines and much, much more.
And, starting from as little as $2,000, why wouldn’t every contractor and harvest planner have a drone waiting in their ute to be deployed as an ‘eye in the sky’ or aerial surveyor at a moment’s notice?
But, before you all go charging down to your local store and grabbing a shiny new UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) there’s a few things you should know:
Drones are classed as an aircraft and subject to certain rules established by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) when used in the great outdoors
Forest owners and managers may not be too happy to have these things buzzing around their stands without certain measures in place
Drones require a level of skill to fly and they can do damage if they get too close to a person or a machine.
These points (and more) only became apparent to me when the publisher of NZ Logger purchased a pocket-size drone for aerial photography a few months back and said it would be available to take into the forest for regular Iron Tests and Breaking Out features.
Great idea. As more crews become fully mechanised it has restricted where and how close I can get to machines – especially harvesters and processors – to grab action photos, due to minimum falling distances, chainshot and so on.
Getting up close to a harvester roped to a winch-assist system to fall large trees on steep slopes without putting myself in danger would be much easier. Photos snapped from the air or videos of the action would look spectacular on our website and Facebook page.
Except that I didn’t have any idea how to fly it, let alone possess the experience to take quality photos from a skittish aerial platform.
And there was another complication; some forest managers would not allow drones to be used in their estates unless the operator could demonstrate competence with the craft, backed by suitable public liability insurance.
This was starting to get a bit more complicated and involved than I’d first imagined.
To gain such competency requires a drone operator to undergo a multi-day course run
by the Massey University School of Aviation in Palmerston North. A wee bit of a trek from the upper North Island. But there is another option, and one that is tailored to the requirements of those working in the forestry industry; a specialised course run by Interpine in Rotorua in conjunction with Massey University.
The appeal of the Interpine course is that it’s all-inclusive, with drones supplied, course work and information, indoors and outdoors flying areas (ie not weather dependent) and they feed you lunch, too – just turn up.
The downside; it’s a five-day course (Monday to Friday). And if you’re from out of town you need accommodation.
The upside; if you pass the course (yes, there are exams), you get your drone wings and a certificate that says you are a qualified Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) operator to CAA Rule Part 101. What that means is you have demonstrated that you understand the rules and regulations about where and how you can operate a drone (up to 25kg in weight if it’s professionally built, or 15kg if it’s a home build).
You can still fly a drone in New Zealand without that qualification, but you’ll probably find that there are a number of places that won’t welcome you without it, such as an increasing number of plantation forests.
And it’s for that reason a number of contractors and other forestry personnel are putting five days aside to go through one of these courses. I did and was joined by a colleague from the magazine publisher and while we initially questioned the need for five days out of our very busy schedules, at the end we found it difficult to say where time could have been cut – maybe a day if you are already a competent drone flyer.
So, Hayden Woolston and myself joined 10 others at the Tui Ridge
Park adventure centre, 20 minutes north of Rotorua, to get our wings.
Interpine runs these courses approximately every two-to-three months and taking part alongside us were two harvesting contractors (Kerry McCormick of McCormick Logging and Rob Dunn from Jensen Logging), three from forest managers (Port Blakley, Rayonier, and Logic FSL), one from Scion Research, three from the Ministry (MPI) and two from the Civil Aviation Authority, who wanted to get first-hand experience of just how their rules were being put into practice.
For the first two days, it was mostly about the practicalities of flying drones and learning about the craft we would be using, in this case the DJI Phantom 4, a reasonably rugged but not waterproof drone that retails in stores for around $2,000. However, Interpine does sell these as part of a kit, comprising of a sturdy carry case, the drone itself and four rotors, hand control unit (you’ll need an iPad or smartphone to use as a screen), spare batteries, a charger and spare rotor blades for around $2,500.
The spare batteries are necessary for those intending to do a lot of flying as each charge will provide around 25 minutes of flight time. Charging can be done from a vehicle, as well as plugging into a home or office 3-pin socket.
Interpine also displayed a number of other types of drone, including larger models capable of flying further and carrying loads, plus one very similar to our NZ Logger drone, a DJI Mavic, which suits us because it folds up very small for travelling around the country.
Although we brought along our little Mavic to the course, Hayden and I decided we would use the same Phantom 4 as our fellow drone newbies.
The Tui Ridge Park facility has a massive gymnasium that was ideal for learning to fly the drones in a controlled area devoid of wind. Or rain – most drones are not waterproof and if their circuitry gets wet they’ll drop out of the sky.
After two days we all felt confident that we could fly our drones in a series of intricate manoeuvres and land them in one piece, thanks to the patience of the Interpine trainers, all experienced drone flyers (and one who is a commercial aircraft pilot). But
the next two days took us all out of our comfort zones as we crammed around six months’ worth of knowledge on aviation rules, legal requirements, technology and communications into less than 16 hours. This was conducted at the Interpine offices in Rotorua by two lecturers from the Massey University School of Flying, both fixed wing flying instructors.
Who knew that you needed to check with the control tower of an aerodrome/airport that is within 4km of the place you propose to use your drone because it’s a controlled airspace used by manned aircraft? And what really surprised us is that all of Lake Rotorua, Lake Taupo and the Marlborough Sounds is considered an ‘aerodrome’ because they are used by float planes.
Then you have to know about restricted airspace, low flying zones, military zones, danger zones and other hazards. Why? Because forests around New Zealand could easily come within any of these zones or spaces and the rules are there to separate drones from other air users. The course book covering all this ran to over 400 pages and at the end we all had to sit a one-hour written exam to make sure we understood the rules and regs. The pass mark was set at 70% and it’s been a while since I had to sit an exam and fortunately, Hayden and I both passed. But that wouldn’t get us our wings yet.
The final day saw us all back at Tui Ridge Park where the Massey instructors put each of us through a pair of practical drone flight tests, along with oral questions. One test was conducted in the gymn and the second took place outside. This really did take us out of our comfort zones – even those with drone flying experience reckoned it was a challenge.
And the relief was evident as each person was presented with miniature wings and a certificate that we can now wave at anyone who questions if we are qualified to take a UAV into the forest.
Tutors and ‘students’ gather for a photo op from the air – courtesy of a drone, of course.
Top left: Logging contractor, Kerry McCormick, gets to grips with drone flying.Above top and middle:Qualified pilot and drone tutor, Jayne Marsh, introduces ‘pupils’ to their drones.Shannon Mickleburgh, of Massey University, covers rules and regulations for flying drones in New Zealand.Above: Allied Publishing’s Hayden Woolston holds the NZ Logger DJI Mavic drone, with some of the other options sitting on the table.
The DJI Phantom 4 drone is widely used in forestry.
Drone instructor, Chris Scoggins (far left), gives a practical demonstration inside Tui Ridge gymnasium.
Learning to control the drone outside of the gymnasium, in windy conditions and near trees, takes practice