Triathlon camera drone falls out of the sky, owner claims it was hacked

Filed Under: Featured

Image of a camera drone, courtesy of ShutterstockA drone that was supposed to be filming an Australian triathlon fell out of the air and struck a triathlete in the head, sending her to hospital on Sunday.

The athlete, Raija Ogden, was heading into the second lap of the run part of the Endure Batavia Triathlon race, in Western Australia's Mid West.

She was close to the finish line when the remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), more commonly known as a drone, dropped on her.

There are conflicting accounts, with the drone's owner saying she was simply startled and fell, and that she wasn't actually hit by the drone.

Ogden insists she was struck, however, and even suggested that a piece of the propeller was pulled from her head by a paramedic.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the drone fell about 10 meters (about 33 feet) before hitting Ogden, causing her to fall to the ground.

Ogden was treated at the scene by paramedics, taken to hospital, and received three stitches.

She's in stable condition, according to a statement put out by the Geraldton Triathlon Club.

The drone was operated and owned by a local videography company, New Era Photography and Film, which was covering the event with live footage.

The company's owner, Warren Abrams, said that the circumstances looked suspicious and that hacking might have been involved:

We will be conducting a full investigation of what happened but it looks as though someone has hacked into our system.

The incident's being investigated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

Abrams told reporters that an initial investigation suggests that someone nearby channel hopped the device, wresting control away from the drone's operator.

Abrams called the drone's faint a deliberate act, saying that it would be difficult to determine who was responsible, as something as common as a mobile phone could be used to perform a channel hop.

Slashdot commenters raised multiple eyebrows at Abrams' claims, particularly given that the videographer had noted that this was the drone's second incident that day.

In spite of the earlier incident, and given that a field test after the first incident failed to reveal any problems, the company chose to deploy it during the race.

CASA spokesman Peter Gibson told the ABC that he was confident sophisticated drones used in commercial operations are unlikely to be controlled or hacked to fall out of the sky:

[But] the simpler ones that you can go down to a store and buy, maybe that is possible given that they're that much more basic.

[It's] very unlikely they're going to be used in commercial operations where they're going to be near people or property.

Of course, it's possible that it could have been hacked, given the success that US college students have had in hijacking drones.

In July 2013, a drone was hijacked by researchers with a $1,000 spoofer.

But at this point, we just don't know whether the drone was experiencing mechanical difficulty, the drone was hacked, the drone flew out of range, or some other operator error was in play.

It will be interesting to see the results of CASA's investigations.

Until then, we're glad you're OK, Ms. Ogden, and hope that this violent end to a race hasn't knocked the wind out of your sails.

Example image of UAV used for filming courtesy of Shutterstock.

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12 Responses to Triathlon camera drone falls out of the sky, owner claims it was hacked

  1. rakso75 · 547 days ago

    If the operator can create a reasonable doubt that the drone was hacked, he will likely escape from responsibilities from the "accident", what tends to mean that he will not have to pay fines, compensation,... so he will not lose (his own) money.

    This reminds me of those cases where people are found with child pornography or other illegal material in their computers and they claim they were hacked. Actually, occasionally that has been true (I remember a case of a fireman somewhere in the US) but more often that not is just an excus... eh, a legal escape...

    • "... create a reasonable doubt...", maybe, if he were in America, but he's in Australia and it may not be as simple.

  2. Joeri · 547 days ago

    "unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), more commonly known as a drone"

    So a RC helicopter (which it was in this case) is classified as a drone aswell these days?

  3. Never fly RC planes/quad copters above people period. This is what can and will happen. The radio frequencies that many of these devices use are open civilian use bands. They can suffer from interference, bad batteries etc. The parts, while probably of high quality, are not the kind of thing you want to trust your life with. Flying them above people is irresponsible. I know it is cool to get footage of people mountain biking, running or whatever but the equipment has too many ways to fail to trust them above people. I fly RC and Heli's and one of the major rules for safety is don't fly above people or behind the flight line. This disregards that common sense rule and and going to stain a hobby that otherwise has had a stellar safety record.

  4. Jack Wilborn · 546 days ago

    I have been against them for quite awhile, and this just suggests a good reason. What if it had been a 'large' uav? They have admitted that they have no autonomous controls if the remote 'pilot' becomes 'disconnected'.

    As far as who's responsible for her bills, at least is always the question. It should have never been above persons. They have no business in the sky until they prove they can return the craft to a specified point without a remote pilot.

    • Tim · 546 days ago

      I'm fairly certain regardless of who's at fault the videography company will cover the bills. Medical bills really aren't expensive in Australia so they're generally covered as good will.

  5. Serpico · 546 days ago

    Going by that logic, we shouldn't allow airplanes to fly over populated areas, should we?

    • Airplanes have PILOTS... "UN-Manned Aerial Vehicles" do not have on-board pilots... thus the categorization of "UN-Manned Aerial Vehicles".

      • Serpico · 545 days ago

        Right! And pilots never make errors? Planes flying on Sept 11 had pilots as well.

        • rakso75 · 545 days ago

          Well, those pilots actually did not commit any error, they did what they intended (unfortunately). And since then, flying over populated areas is much more controlled (and for a reason) and avoided when and where possible.

  6. Buck · 546 days ago

    Are the radio controllers for drones/RC Airplanes pretty much the same? Do they use basically the same frequencies on a non-interference basis? If so, anybody with a remote control unit could hijack the drone, especially if he/she had an RF power amplifier and antenna strong enough to overcome the signals from the legitimate control unit.

    This would be a brute force takeover, not really a hack as we know it.

  7. Exeter · 23 days ago

    “Hacked” makes you wonder about how the signal was generated.

    The controller on some consumer models needs a bluetooth & wifi connection, correct? Still true for low-end “professional” drones.

    And if they go out of signal range of the paired controller - the device returns.

    Were those wide open, or at least password secured?

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.