Flying through the lockdown
Updated: Oct 17, 2020
At the start of lockdown there was reports of something very strange in the skies around Tamworth on Thursday evenings. Local Facebook groups were rife with speculation what the eerie lights were whizzing around the neighbourhood. "anyone else see the strange UFO like light in the sky - it's blue and green??" read one post. Obviously the contributor didn't read the post we made half an hour prior, telling everyone to look out for the "flying heart!". We felt we wanted to show our appreciation to all the NHS and keyworkers during lockdown and the idea was to fly the drone with a heart dangling from it and strobe lights to coincide with the weekly clapping.
There was one problem, we wasn't allowed to leave our home except for essential journeys, and flying a drone certainly wasn't essential. How could we get round this, especially as we live in the middle of an estate with properties all around us? Well first of all we have what is known as a PfCO from the CAA which allows us to fly commercially and more importantly for this in congested areas... with lots of restrictions!!
First of all we need to have everyone within 30 metres of our take off and landing areas under our control. We needed cooperation of around 9 surrounding properties. How do I inform these neighbours if we are not allowed out? As with any other flight we did a risk assessment. During the Covid 19 outbreak we have to consider crew health more seriously than ever such l as social distancing and touching things such as doorbells. Armed with gloves and hand sanitiser I took the opportunity of my daily walk to deliver comprehensive letters to each of the others with a clear instruction to text or phone me with a yes or a no (as well as a safety brief) All but one did with absolutely no opposition and the neighbour I managed to shout across fence to.
Then where could I actually fly safely? Although technically we can overfly we have to have a good safety case for doing so. We also needed to have visual line of sight of drone and be no further than 500 metres away. I am lucky to live near a playing field directly in front of my house but one cul de sac. Even better there is a very wide pathway/ grassed area connecting my road to it. I knew as we were in lockdown the field would be very quiet. II could safely get to the field from my driveway by crossing my immediate neighbours garden, crossing our very quiet street (which I can see clearly from my upper window), following grassed area and over to the field. I pre programmed waypoints into drone to ensure it followed an accurate flightpath at the right height thus avoiding any overflying of properties. Once above the field we performed a quick safety scan to see if anyone was around and then flew the heart around the waypoints to remain over field! Job done!
Locals loved seeing the flying heart which we designed using a funeral weath, and a strip of LED lights. The flights went without issue until week 2. Although a risk assessment was done and various flight tests were completed in advance, we did notice that the heart was interfering with the downward sensors when descending making it much slower therefore as a precautionary measure due to the battery levels it was decided to land in our pre identified alternative landing spot during week 2. Luckily the wife hadn't been out the house that day so I sent her on her daily exercise to act as my spotter, and to retrieve it! Result! This is where our preflight planning comes into place and was invaluable. (even local police were also informed of our intentions as part of risk assessments)
Following this observation we decided to remove it future flights, instead just using LED's and strobes. Although not as impressive, we realised this removed this particular element of risk and would allow us to fly a lot more freely without having to compensate for every turn or change in altitude. As the weeks got lighter the lighting wasn't so effective. We changed our strategy to include live broadcasts and went live on facebook, interacting with our viewers. The locals loved this as they could see their area from a new perspective. It certainly got people talking. We also launched again at dusk so the lights could be seen and again went live as the area looked fantastic at night. The only downside to these flights is that my flying area was fairly limited so became fairly repetitive plus we were conscious of our neighbours.
Last week after being given more freedom of movement from Boris, we took off from a brand new location- common land in the centre of the village. This gave the opportunity to give some outstanding views of local lakes (which surprisingly some locals don't even kow were on their doorstep, and of landmarks such as Drayton Manor theme park and the town centre all basking in glorious sunshine. The only downside was using 4G rather than wifi so transmission was more glitchy although we may t have solved that issue for future.
Surprisingly we were also approached by an angry local that accused us of spying and hovering over his property, and even called the police! My flight footprint clearly shows me right over empty fields no where near any house. Also the only time the camera is ever pointed down is for a quickly safety scan, we are certainly not in the business of invading privacy or spying, you could do this easier with google maps! This shows that public perception of drones is still low however most PfCO holders like myself are responsible and professional. In fact as well as a salute to our keyworkers another reason we persued with these flights was as a PR exercise - not for Pesky Seagull as a company but for the drone industry in general, showing their power and benefits! Although we have now decided to call time on these flight, unfortunately for him I will be back to capture some cracking aerial photographs soon, just not of his garden, wherever that may be! We still however THANK the NHS and all key workers for their efforts throughout the pandemic.