In October last year after a shark attack in Ballina the shark-spotting drones known as Little Ripper were deployed for aerial patrols around the Ballina beaches, however all did not go as planned and as we reported exclusively at the time, one of the drones went off course and crashed.  An Air Transport and Safety Bureau (ATSB) investigation into the incident has now been concluded and it’s worse than we originally thought.

CEO of Little Ripper, Eddie Bennett told EFTM at the time that things were “All good at our end as far as we’re concerned” – and some reports had indicated the crashed drone had been recovered.  This was not the case.

In fact, according to the investigation by the ATSB the drone was never located after extensive searches.


So what happened?  Well, pilot error – or more correctly – operator error as it turns out.

The drone was scheduled to fly up and down the beach in a grid-like pattern on patrol, and those co-ordinates were uploaded to the drone ready for flight.

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On take off – at around 36 feet in the air, the aircraft was placed into “manual” mode meaning an individual (not computer) was flying it, and the aircraft followed those pilot instructions for around seven minutes.  After that, at around 124 feet in the air, the signal was lost.

30 seconds later, the drone entered what we know as “return to home” mode, a standard safety feature of many drones, even consumer drones allowing them to fly back and land very close to where they took off from.

Sadly for the operator in this case, the $250,000 drones home position was set to somewhere in the northern hemisphere.  Yep, way north of ‘home’.

According to the ATSB report : “data shows that during the planning phase, while the north-western marker was correctly assigned, the south-eastern marker was incorrectly assigned to a georeference point with a latitude in the northern hemisphere.”

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Operator error.  Clear and simple.

The Little Ripper was heading home and would have flown straight there until its battery went dead – and it would have fallen into the ocean.

For many in the drone industry that’s no surprise.  EFTM has been contacted by many qualified drone pilots since October about the Little Ripper organisation and drones being used.

One stated that “The GCS (Ground Control Software) is old software running on Windows, whilst i was flying the machine, the software crashed and an error message asked if I wanted to send an error report back to Microsoft, the machine was at 200ft altitude 100 meters away.

Setting up a mission requires using Google Earth and taking a snapshot, the user is then responsible for importing the map and typing in a Lat and Long manually.

Making sure the home position and altitude is set and take off point is set correctly to match the UAV’s position, for if they differ the UAV will roll over on takeoff.”

Given these manual programming controls, it’s hardly surprising that an operator error was going to occur.

The fact the CEO and now “Chief Pilot” of Little Ripper Eddie Bennett told EFTM that things were “All good at our end” at the time when a $250,000 aircraft was missing presumed lost is a worry.

Philanthropist and founding president of the International Life Saving Federation Kevin Weldon has funded the bulk of the Little Ripper operations and instigated the Westpac sponsorship of the aircraft, and given his passion for the shark-spotting cause that will no doubt continue.

Let’s hope some additional skills and operations training is put in place for future flights and operators.

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Oh, and if you’re looking for a sunken drone – it’s somewhere between Ballina and the Coral Sea.