Recreational drones and the regulatory crackdown

A recent trip to Canada and the USA was the occasion of discovering that the explosion of the number of drones has triggered increasingly stringent regulation.

After very mediatized incidents of drones being flown near to airports and other unsafe conduct from recreational drone pilots, the calls were general for more regulation. This, while drones continue being a hot market item (easily bought at Best Buy in Canada, or even on the web site of DJI).

It is true that the explosion of recreational drones has had as consequence a lot of irresponsible behavior by unprepared pilots who do not take enough precautions a). to avoid disrupting major aviation activities; b). to avoid endangering others while learning to master their machine.

It is also true that there are not enough schools to learn how to fly safely a drone, short of taking piloting courses. So, most novice pilots are left to their own devices, and if they lack some obvious common sense, they can become dangerous for others.

From one excess to another

 

Nevertheless the regulatory answer to these excesses and this mass market explosion of drones (most coming from China, by the way) has been marked by another excess.

Taking the example of Canada, for example, no flight can take place within less than 9 kms from any airport (in Hong Kong, it is just 5 kms). And given some areas of Canada are literally littered with airports or seaports, this makes it almost impossible to fly legally. Let’s not even mention the natural parks where flying drones is also restricted. You cannot fly above 90 m, you cannot fly within 75 m of a house, a person or an animal. So, to find a place to fly a drone, you should just go to the middle of a forest far from any civilization. Oh, and your name, address and phone number must be present on the drone.

That’s not nearly as bad as the USA, where, if you are not registered with the FAA, you cannot legally fly a drone at all. The consequence was that I carefully avoided taking out my drone while in the US. In France, no flight is allowed above cities and areas you can fly a drone into are very reduced.

Consequences of over-regulation

The fines, in Canada are pretty hefty, reaching up to 25,000 CAD if Air Canada finds you in violation of its regulations. “No drone” signs are now found even on some bridges, and flying in a city is basically impossible. I did however see a Chinese guy taking his Mavic Pro up in the airs at English Bay, for a very short while. The picture that was basically the same as he could have taken with a DSLR. Still, he was in violation of the Canadian laws.

While the sale of drones has not been regulated, the profusion of these prohibitions has as practical effect: it clips the wings of anyone wishing to try these gadgets. Drones are lovely tools to take spectacular photos, but they must be used responsibly and with care. The problem is that everything has been focused on prohibition and banning whereas the real answer would be education. On the other hand, drone pilots are always looking for the most spectacular footage, sometimes taking absolutely stupid risks. This footage being an example in point.

In the USA, “education” has been answered under the form of obliging every drone pilot to register themselves after following extensive courses and to pass an examination to become a drone pilot. The positive side of this is that basically you are taught a job and can get one after this course. The negative side is that such courses are very expensive.

A middle ground?

While flying my drone, I am often approached by amateurs who wish to purchase a drone too. I do notice that there is some surprise when I advise them that I must take some precautions when flying, check wind speed etc. So, education is definitely a must for drone pilots, even if many rules are simple common sense. For instance, asking bystanders to stand clear of the landing area, checking for electric wires, etc, having an idea of where you are going to fly your drone. I also see some drone pilots flying dangerously (out of line of sight, near electric masts, etc). At the same time, not every recreational drone pilot needs to be versed into UAV piloting rules.

A simple obligatory course in elementary flight safety rules, piloting course and emergency procedures would be sufficient for the vast majority of recreational drone pilots. The problem is that with every stunt pulled by an irresponsible drone pilot, we end up closer to extreme regulation and prohibition.

A stark warning for Suicide Cliff

Today, as I was passing on Fei Ngo Shan road, I found a new message affixed at the bottom of the stairs leading to Kowloon Peak. This is a stark warning for suicide cliff, a hike that has seen recently at least one death and several rescues every month.

Stark warning for suicide cliff
The Government warns hikers to turn back on the path to suicide cliff

A useless warning?

This warning has not dissuaded visitors in the least as can be seen on this picture. Furthermore, hikers deliberately disregard the warning. In other web sites, some hikers post pictures of very dangerous attitudes, such as hanging by the hands from a rock. As a lawyer, I guess this is a way to exclude the liability of the government should someone else fall to his death on this hike.

The fame of suicide cliff has attracted a motley crowd, often composed of foreigners and newcomers who desire to visit this place, without knowing the route at all. On busy days, you just follow the crowd. On less busy days, the potential for an accident is quickly come. You should thus document yourself on the route, and more particularly, to take it slow.

Hiking safely

Even though web sites and blogs such as this one do celebrate the beauty of the place, I must repeat the need for caution. I hiked to that place with a group for the first time. I covered that hike several times, in group and without group, before doing the hike barefoot. This hike can be dangerous if covered without the appropriate precautions or too fast. It is also important to recognize the terrain beforehand. You must also be aware that this hike cannot be covered in less than three hours and this is from the most well-trodden route.

Finally, it is better to climb to suicide cliff, and not to go down. The potential for slipping and falling is 100x bigger when going down a steep wall, rather than climbing it and going down the stairs. Shortcuts do not exist without dangers in mountain. Similarly, do always pack a light in your luggage if starting the hike in the afternoon. It is better to carry a little more and be safe.

 

Avoid Jat’s incline route

And again, a reminder that I often do on this blog: avoid Jat’s incline route at all costs. That route is dangerous, challenging and deadly. The beauty of suicide cliff can be seen in so many ways, that it is absolutely useless to endanger yourself beyond reason. Hike safely and hope that the stupidity of some does not oblige the authorities to close this marvelous place to the public.

Another hiker dies in Hong Kong

It has become a sad litany this past month, with this being the third time a hiker dies in Hong Kong in under a month. This time, however, tragedy hits closer to home, as I had met the deceased hiker on Suicide cliff during a previous hike.

 

Presuming of one’s strength

Apparently, Albert Poon, the hiker, had been hiking in the geopark of Sai Kung. He then tried to swim to an island and was overcome when returning from that island, according to records in the media.

Local water temperature must have been around 15°, which would be easily conducive to hypothermia. Furthermore, starting a swim in cold water after the stress of a hike, must have taken an additional toll.

Albert was not hiking alone. He was with a group of hikers, but he presumed of his own strength. Hiking groups are often flaunted as a solution to reduce the danger of hiking… But if someone presumes of his strength and/or is pushed beyond his limits, they offer no security. However, the friends of Albert were able to call for help to get him evacuated.

 

Why does it hit close to home?

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I met Albert during one of my hikes up on suicide cliff. At the time, he had even asked me why I was hiking alone. I took a picture for him, and we exchanged our phone numbers. Albert came across as a friendly and cheerful guy and from the looks of it, he was extremely fit.

In a way, when we lose someone we knew personally, it is always a reminder that we are mortal. And since we are both hikers, it is an additional reminder to be careful when hiking. Hiking is a stressful experience for the body. So, when you do that, you should always be taking care of not pushing your body too far.

So rest in peace, Albert, and thanks for that brief encounter on suicide cliff.

 

An umpteenth helicopter rescue on Kowloon peak

I guess that becomes repetitive, but this is the umpteenth helicopter rescue on Kowloon Peak. The helicopter had to come back twice!

A treacherous route

It seems hikers get lost quite easily on the Jat’s incline side (one of the hardest sides to hike), especially when going down. So, I know I have said and repeated it several times, but if you are considering to hike on suicide cliff, please abstain from going down through Jat’s Incline route, especially at night. You are not only endangering yourselves, but you are also mobilizing uselessly important rescue resources for being stupid.

Jat’s Incline route should never be attempted if you did not do it previously with an experienced hiker. It should, under no circumstances be undertaken if you never went to suicide cliff.

There is a very easy and riskless way down, which is to take the stairs. Going down via Jat’s incline at night in paramount to being irresponsible and unconscious.

Suicide cliff, a trendy  hike… Too trendy?

Most readers land on this blog because of a search on suicide cliff, and these searches originate all over the world. It is a challenging hike for non-experienced hikers, let alone people who come there for the first time. Doing it in daylight is hard merely because of the physical exertion and the difficult passages to overcome. Doing it at night demands extra care because of the lack of visibility and the risks involved with climbing a mountain.

The issue with the trendy side of this hike is that it appeals to a number of people who have often no clue about safety. The issue with posts such as those on this blog is that they might give wrong ideas to people. So, I must emphasize that I never went down on Jat’s incline. I strongly recommend not to take that route, given the risks involved. Climbing suicide cliff via the northern side and going down via the stairs can be done with little to no risks. Going up or down via Jat’s incline is not to be done, especially when it is the first time.

Overestimating one’s capacities

One should never overestimate one’s capacities or take extra risks, just because there is a rescue system in place. Rescue costs money to the community, so calling a helicopter in is no ordinary fat. All the more as the helicopter must hover very close to the mountain, hence putting its crew at risk.

So, if you are planning on climbing Kowloon Peak or going to suicide cliff, please be responsible and be careful. You don’t want to be another of those irresponsible hikers.

The dangers of hiking: evacuation on suicide cliff

Yesterday, there had to be a helicopter rescue mission on the top of Kowloon peak with an evacuation on suicide cliff. Whether it is extreme dehydration (with 35 ° C, yesterday was a day of hell) or injury, this proves that you should never attempt difficult hikes without having more experienced climbers with you.

The difference between hiking safely and being evacuated

Despite this, I went back through a different route (Middle Hill) to Kowloon Peak with a group. While not excessively difficult, it passes near to some cliffs, and hence requires being careful. The extreme heat was a complicating factor too, but we were a nicely knit group from the Hiking meetup. So, don’t forget to take a lot of water, and go slow rather than too fast. And better go with someone who knows the route.

Photo taken approximately from Middle hill on the final leg to Kowloon Peak.