By Randy Richmond, The London Free Press
It was bound to happen sooner or later: A drone-vehicle collision.
Londoner Joe O’Neil just wasn’t expecting it to be his drone to crash.
In front of police officers.
On top of a police van.
“Not on the ground, oh, no. Right on the hood of the police van,” an equally exasperated and bemused O’Neil said a few hours after his Sunday morning fall from grace.
O’Neil was watching London Hydro crews work on a transformer outside his home and offered to use his basketball-sized drone, a kind of miniature helicopter, to videotape the work.
Hydro workers told him they have to do a lot of safety checks, including looking for hotspots from the ground, before they work.
O’Neil thought it’d be interesting to see if a drone could help from above and set up across the road in a parking lot at H.B. secondary school on King Street.
O’Neil takes his hobby seriously. A former pilot, he’s taking a ground course for UVAs (anmanned aerial vehicles) and is a member of the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada.
He’s made dozens of flights, helping the Thames Talbot Land Trust spot diseased trees from the air and London’s Back to the River campaign see the Thames River from above. (You can see some on his youtube channel at www.youtube.com/user/maiingun1)
O’Neil has upgraded his drones five times since he got the first one for his birthday in November, and his newest bought three weeks ago, the one up in the air Sunday, cost $1,500.
While O’Neil flew the drone, a London police officer doing traffic control walked over to watch and chat about how useful drones could be in stopping crime or looking for missing people.
O’Neil took a second to switch from video to still photographs. The drone was hovering about 80 feet in the air and working just fine.
“I was just talking about flying a drone safely, All of a sudden there is the huge pop in the air,” O’Neil said.
Everyone turned to look at the transformer, thinking someone had touched a hot spot.
“Seconds later the thing smashes right on the hood beside us,” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘this is not happening.’”
The police van sustained a few scuffs, but the officer pointed out vehicles often receive much worse. The problem is the paperwork.
“The police officer said to me, ‘I don’t even know how I’m going to report this.’ “
O’Neil took photographs of the drone, with its bent propeller, to post on Facebook and send to the manufacturer to get a refund.
“It’s all busted to hell,” he said. “If I get a bill from police for the van, I’m going to send it to the company.”
But as a longtime heritage activist in London, O’Neil can at least take comfort in the potential historical nature of the crash.
“Police said they’ve never of this happening anywhere to a police vehicle.
It might the first time in Canada,” O’Neil said. “After many years of researching history, I may have just made history.”