NYPD Chopper "near miss" with UAVs near George Washington in NYC

Tuesday, July 8, 2014 | comments

To start with, my first inclination is to trust and support the Police account of this event. Their job is pretty tough patrolling a city of over 8 million people in a 20 mile radius. Not just everyday criminal activity, but after 911, terrorism has to be forefront in their minds, so I think the benefit of the doubt should always be given. Consideration to allow them to do their job safely is paramount.

With that being said, reading this story, I can understand how these UAV pilots could have easily gotten themselves into this mess. Full disclosure, I am a UAV pilot and I own 2 of the quad-copters that those two men were reported to have. I know the capabilities of them and I know the pitfalls of flying them in areas such as this. 

Here is the original article in forbes. Two men arrested for 'near miss' with NYPD Helicopter near GWB

Let's say for the sake of argument that these men were flying around the GWB. The cameras that can be mounted on these flying craft are among the best, so gathering footage of such a beautiful landmark - especially at night - would be so tempting to any of us who love photography stills and video and it's easy to see why they would want to fly there. I don't even disagree with anyone flying near and around it to get some beautiful night time shots. 

I honestly do not know if there are any laws restricting flights around, under, over or near the bridge. I also don't know exactly where these guys were flying, but that isn't even the point here. The real point is, could those men have been flying near the GWB? The answer is Yes. My DJI Phantom 2 with first person view (FPV) can fly away OVER 1 mile from the place where it took off. Watch the following video to see. The drone (DJI Phantom 1) that took this footage is made by the same company and has less capability than the 2nd version Phantom 2 that these men supposedly have.

Now, I know from experience, that if you fly a drone that small away from you - after about 1,500ft (450m) - you can lose visual site of it. Heck, I've even had it closer to me and lost sight for a few minutes because of the daylight and clouds. At night, you can keep sight of it further away because if has bright LED lights on all 4 rotor booms, but again, you can fly it further than you can actually see it. I don't see this as a problem in an open air setting in general, but in a place where other aircraft could be flying, this could be dangerous and deadly if one aircraft (or both) are not aware of each other's presence and position.

Another realization I've found from flying some 300+ flights is when you send out your UAV, you lose all depth perception. In this example we'll use the GWB and if I launched at a location on the land say 3,000ft away from the bridge, the trouble is, once I get my drone 1,500 to 2,000 feet away from me, it is very hard to judge how close your UAV is from any structure using only your sight from land. I can still see my aircraft with my own eyes from the ground, but the scene becomes very 2 dimensional. I have no idea whether my drone is 1,000 ft or 3,000 ft from the bridge. That's where forward looking FPV comes into play. If your wireless camera view is working well, you can see what's in front of your aircraft. I can rotate it 360 deg to get a pano-view of my surroundings, but you're always looking out the front of the aircraft.

If you've lost visual and only rely on FPV for flying, there's a chance that could cut out from wifi interference or some other disruption.  That's when you now have no idea where the drone is, or how to fly it back to yourself. There are failsafes built in to these aircraft and it is possible to have your drone fly itself 'home' (the position the GPS marked as its starting point), but most pilots would not think of this and the drone does not have any anti-collision features. It could be on a path to fly back to where it took off, but inevitably fly straight into a building, aircraft or anything that was in the way.

The other dilemma drone pilots face is that when they are flying a distance away and only relying on FPV to see where they are going, they have no idea what is around them - outside the FOV (field of view) of the camera. So, getting back to the the original news story, if the men were flying around the GWB for capturing great video and even flying within the constraints of the law, it is very possible they were looking at the bridge - flying it in a way to get panning shots of the bridge and the NYPD chopper approached from an angle where it could not be seen by the drone pilots. Even if they could see their drone from the ground, it would be very hard to know if their vehicle was 1,000 ft or half a mile away from the chopper. Is it possible that they were approached by the chopper, then accidentally flew in it's direction because they disoriented on it's position in relation to the chopper? Again, the answer is Yes. 

Nobody can say yet if this was the case, but from first hand experience, I know it's highly possible.

According to the video the men posted on YouTube, they were flying only 6 stories high.

I'd like to know if they were filming and if they were, the video ought to be pretty compelling evidence of their behavior and easy to see whether they were doing anything dangerous. 

At this point, I do not believe the men were doing anything malicious. Assuming they were filming the GWB - they were probably at a distance of a 1,000 or more feet away from them (not high) and 400 ft altitude (within the law) is usually more than enough to get beautiful vistas you want. If they did fly too close to the NYPD chopper, it was likely a matter of not knowing where they were in relation to the chopper.

With all that said, my personal opinion is drone pilots (commercial or hobbyists), should have to register their drone. They should be required to complete training and even possibly licensing so they can be familiar with the rules that aircraft pilots have to follow. I don't see any problem with creating a system where drone pilots can log their intended flight paths. This app could allow low flying airplane pilots and drone pilots to have some means of communicating their existence to each other. I am worried that leaving it completely open means it will turn into a free-for-all. Where I live there are low flying planes, tour helicopter rides and military aircraft that fly along the coast. Do I worry that one of my drones could inadvertently collide with a manned aircraft and cause property damage, injury or death? You bet I do. 

I definitely advocate the use of drones, but it has to be done with education and training because it literally can be a matter of life and death.

Erik vonBartheld
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