April 3, 2020
High-flying drone pilots capturing unique footage of the nation in lockdown are being warned a collision with an aircraft could be deadly.
Drones are required to keep below 120 metres (400 feet) at all times to avoid collisions with aircraft.
While skies over New Zealand are largely free of aircraft at the moment, essential services are still operating day and night throughout the lockdown.
"It gets pretty boring [during lockdown] so it's fun having something to do," Auckland Rescue Helicopter pilot James Tayler told the Herald.
"Just be aware there are rules out there and people flying around might not want to meet up with a drone.
"Even a fairly small drone can do some pretty significant damage to a helicopter and potentially bring it out of the sky."
Social media posts from drones capturing the nation in lockdown was a major concern for the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust (ARHT).
The footage of empty streets looked great, sending drones into the sky, but it could put other air traffic users in harm's way if rules were not followed, Tayler said.
In October 2018, Tayler had a close encounter with a drone after being deployed to a car crash event in Northland.
The helicopter had climbed to 400 metres and was flying at a speed of around 230km/h when a drone flew by less than four metres away.
"It's one of those things that happens so quickly that you don't have time to worry about it at the time," the pilot and deputy flight operations manager said.
"It's only afterwards when it's gone past that it could have ended very badly, so it was a bit of a delayed shock.
"We certainly don't want a repeat of that. At a time like this, an accident in the air is the last thing our community needs.
ARHT acting chief executive Michaelle Boag said people could not afford to put other lives at risk operating drones outside of the strict limitations.
Meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Authority told drone users not to disturb others' privacy when flying their remote control aircraft.
Drones could not be flown in public spaces like parks, reserves or at the beach during the lockdown, with flying restricted to users' own properties.
If a drone landed outside of a person's property, it would be difficult for the user to retrieve it given the lockdown.
Restrictions were in place for both licensed and unlicensed drone pilots, except for those with direct support from an essential service group.
"If in doubt, stay grounded – it's the safest thing to do and will help ensure you comply with the alert level 4 requirements," the CAA said.
The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust continued to operate 24/7 despite the country entering lockdown last week.