Second helping of drones, please!

Editorial | Mary Ma 31 Oct 2018

Hong Kong's aspiration to be a technology-smart city was supposed to receive a boost from the Hong Kong Tourism Board's drone formation shows celebrating the Wine & Dine Festival this year.

Instead, the crash of nearly half of the 100 drones during a weekend performance dealt that expectation a serious blow.

The incident wasn't one of the contingency scenarios because the Singaporean contractor, Sky Magic, was said to have had a perfect record of staging similar exhibitions elsewhere - including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar - until the setback on the Central waterfront.

Strictly speaking, it wasn't a total failure as the shows on the festival's first two nights went exactly as planned, lighting up the sky with images of champagne glasses and bottles of wine, before climaxing by sky-writing the characters "W & D."

The show above harbor lasted about seven minutes.

It was spectacular, more impressive than the firework displays that cost taxpayers not only eight times more, but have also become a ritual for National Day and Chinese New Year. The drone formation at least brought about something fresh for a populace bored with seeing the same old pyrotechnics year after year.

However, despite the setback, the tourism board should be congratulated for at least attempting to introduce something new.

Executive director Anthony Lau Chun-hon quoted the contractor as saying the GPS signals guiding the drones' flight paths had been tampered with by external sources. With the help of police, the Communications Authority arrested two Sham Shui Po merchants for illegally selling interference devices.

But the culprit or culprits directly responsible for the suspected sabotage have not been tracked down yet. It's nearly impossible to trace the signal once it's switched off.

Experts say while it may require sophisticated technology to steal control of a drone, high tech isn't required to disrupt a show. All the saboteurs need is a powerful jammer, and such devices are readily available in the local market, albeit unlawfully.

It's likely the authorities will continue to crack down on the illegal sale of jammers following Saturday's drone incident.

Will the public be able to see the drone exhibition again during the Wine and Dine Festival next year? I hope so, but I'm not optimistic in view of the bureaucratic mindset of government officials who may not like to allow the drones to fly again.

It would indeed be a pity if organizers in general are forced to abandon efforts to produce something innovative due to an incident such as the drone failure.

Rather than giving up easily, wouldn't it be more meaningful for the SAR to try to overcome the obstacle instead? The public has the right to expect Secretary for Innovation and Technology Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung to take a leading role in this regard.

Lau said the sabotage affected Hong Kong's image. I fear that unless we learn from the incident and double our efforts to acquire an edge in IT, the SAR's image will suffer even greater damage.

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