UK coast safety and rescue group divides over drone ban decision [Update]

coast drone

group in Wales that monitors the local coast to keep visitors safe from rapidly shifting tides has broken away from its national organization after it was banned from continued deployment of its drone as part of its operation. 

The drone discord began when coast watchers scanning the area around Great Orme ­– situated at the end of a peninsula shared with the north Wales town Llandudno – were told by UK organization National Coastwatch Institution to ground its UAV, then get rid of it. When the local station manager, John Humberstone, begged to differ, he was shown the door, and was quickly followed by other members who’ve since formed an independent group.

Not surprisingly, that breakaway Coastwatch Wales unit continues flying its drone as what its all-volunteer staff call a valuable, even life-saving asset in keeping visitors of the beaches and other Great Orme spots out of danger.

ReadDrone assists with rescue in Wales 

Their DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise is equipped with eight cameras, floodlights for night operation, and speakers that broadcast warnings to people at risk of being caught by rapidly rising tides. Humberstone says the drone has already proven its value by helping to herd people out of potentially dangerous situations along the coast.

It’s also, he wryly notes, a much faster and more practical option to him and his fellow volunteers – all of whom are in their seventies – “charging down” the long distances over sand dunes to deliver the same alerts vocally.

Yet despite the evident utility of the drone, when national coast monitoring officials learned it was being used at Great Orme, they immediately ordered it be grounded and sold off.

“They were horrified,” Humberstone told the UK’s Daily Post, noting the nearly $1,600 quadcopter, sensors, lights, speakers, and obstacle avoidance tech was bought with donations from locals. “I think they thought we were too old to be ‘boy racers.’ They didn’t like the idea we had a drone and I was instructed to sell it. I said ‘It’s not ours to sell. It’s been purchased by the kindness of the public.’”

December 8 Update

The tussle over the contested drone took another turn this week amid reports that officials from the National Coastwatch Institution swooped into break-away Coastwatch Wales’ premises Friday and confiscated the craft, citing a technicality in claiming to be the rightful owners.

Donations that financed its purchase, the organization argued, were made when the Welsh unit was still a member of the national network, meaning any funds or gear it took in prior it splitting off could not be retained once it had gone off on its own.

The self-defeating effort to deny Coastwatch Wales the use of its drone became immediately apparent later on Friday. Humberstone told North Wales Live that an alert soon came in that strollers on the local sandbanks needed to be warned of rising waters, which required heavier measures that took longer to deploy than a swift drone flight would have. He fears not every potentially dangerous situation will be resolved with the same success without the craft as an asset.

“I think it’s such a tragedy,” Humberstone told the paper of the National Coastwatch Institution’s imposition of its will regarding the drone, and its intransigence in disregarding its efficiency in protecting people from danger. “It’s really awful that an organization as big as the NCI are taking this attitude. We are volunteers, we are not paid, and there’s no motivation apart from wanting to put something back into the community and our own mental well-being… If it wasn’t so serious in terms of affecting people’s health it would be farcical.”

It’s not clear just what National Coastwatch Institution’s objections to the drone were, but the pretext for giving Humberstone the heave for his continued use of it was an unspecified complaint it got about the craft from someone in August. A dozen of the total 15 Great Orme station volunteers were infuriated by the national organization’s self-defeating position, and joined Humberstone to form their own Coastwatch Wales unit. 

ReadPilots of new North Wales Police drone unit already hailed as ‘high-flying heroes’ 

They now pay about $40 per month to rent a cabin for their observation work on the other end of the beach from the mobile facility that the National Coastwatch Institution maintains. 

Despite the additional cost, less advantageous monitoring spot, and acrimony generated by the scission with the national organization, Wales’ coast watchers had come away winners in one way: They’d been free to fly the drone on a regular, highly productive basis. That all changed, however, in Friday’s confiscation of the craft.

Photo: Joshua Paul Gardner

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