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Remote-controlled diggers do the risky work at Christchurch’s Shag Rock Reserve

Protranz owner Gerard Daldry said he believed the diggers were the only ones of their kind in the world.

After 28 years operating diggers Ivan Manuel never thought he would end up controlling one remotely using a joystick.


But this is exactly what he and Vaughan Breen have been doing for the past six weeks at Shag Rock Reserve, also known as Peacocks Gallop, in Christchurch’s seaside suburb of Sumner.

The pair has spent hours each day suspended metres above the ground in a cherry picker controlling two diggers that are chipping away to make the earthquake-damaged cliff face safe.

The cliff face is so unstable that it is too dangerous for drivers to sit in the diggers.

“It’s hard. It’s challenging, much harder than sitting in the cab,” Manuel said

Ivan Manuel and Vaughan Breen stand high in a cherry picker while operating these diggers at Shag Rock Reserve via remote control.

The most difficult part was operating the digger when it was facing him, because the controls were the opposite to what he was used to.

“You have to think in 360 degrees all the time.”

The remote-controlled diggers are two of four owned by Protranz Earthmoving Ltd, which was involved in the $3 million project to make Shag Rock Reserve and the neighbouring Deans Head safe.

Vaughan Breen uses a remote control to operate a digger at Shag Rock Reserve.

Protranz owner Gerard Daldry believed the diggers were the only ones of their kind in the world.

He bought standard diggers, took them apart and, with the help of two engineers, completely rebuilt them with remote control technology. They have new hydraulic and electrical systems that allow them to move at the touch of a joystick.

Daldry’s technology has created international interest and last year he won an innovation award at the World Demolition Awards in the Netherlands.

The 30 and 23-tonne diggers working at Shag Rock Reserve are worth about $1.8m, but Daldry has been unable to insure them, because of the risky situations they are used in.

“If we get a massive earthquake right now and the cliff comes down that’s $1.8m down the toilet.”

If the diggers break down under the cliff, Daldry could also not retrieve them.

“That’s where they’ll live.”

So how does Daldry sleep at night knowing his company is exposed to that level of risk?

“It keeps the nightmares away if you don’t shut your eyes,” he said.

Lights on the front of the diggers alert the controllers to any issues on the machine and staff constantly monitor the diggers’ condition from a Protranz office in Johns Road. The diggers were also given a thorough check twice a day.

The work being done at the site has created a lot of public interest with people pulling up deck chairs on Sumner beach to watch the work. Many people did not realise the diggers were operated remotely and had complained about how irresponsible and dangerous it was to put people inside diggers so close to the cliff.

Daldry said people were surprised to hear the drivers were standing metres away in a cherry picker.

– Stuff