Media Coverage in the Drone Industry: Perspective Needed

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bbc dji drones prison delivery

A media clip used in a BBC News segment about the high quantity of drugs in UK prisons

Working in DJI’s communications department must come with its ups and downs. Being the manufacturer synonymous with the industry means you get plenty of free publicity whenever a media organization is running a drone-related story. But it also means that your name gets dragged through the mud whenever something bad ‘happens’.

Take this for an example. In the past week, DJI and drone technology more generally have had some pretty bad publicity in the UK media. The first incident involved (yet another) drone pilot reportedly flying too close to an airport – in this case London Gatwick – and causing commercial flights to be diverted.

The key word here is reportedly, because although the story can be found in plenty of reputable news outlets, including the BBC, there is little more than passenger testimony to go by. It wasn’t that long ago that a similar ‘near-miss’ drone incident at London Heathrow turned out to be a flying plastic bag.

There’s no doubt that there are rogue pilots flying where they shouldn’t and getting too close to airports. It’s also fair to assume that, as drone sales are on the rise, more of these incidents are occurring than before. However, there does appear to be a tendency to overstate both the frequency and the seriousness of these situations.

The second example of negative coverage this past week was a BBC News feature outlining the rising number of drugs in UK prisons. Prison officers confiscated 225kg (about 500lb) of drugs in one year, which is both impressive and a little worrying, according to the report.

There has been evidence showing that drones are being used to drop contraband into UK prisons, but the notion that this is a common occurrence or indeed that drones are the real problem here is widely overstated. There were 33 incidents of drones being detected in or around jails in England and Wales in 2015. These were not wholely responsible for the 500lb of drugs and 13,000 phones confiscated in prisons across the UK a year later.

Unfortunately for DJI, the company’s latest Phantom was used to illustrate a menacing drone hovering above some prison wire in the news report. And they say all publicity is good publicity! Ironically, the company hasn’t even joined the drone delivery bandwagon yet.

DJI will continue to be associated with the worst consequences of drone technology, whether that’s prison deliveries, near-misses with aircraft or the weaponizing tendencies of Isis.

Are Drones Being Scapegoated?

Back in the US, you will have struggled not to hear about a South Carolina prison escape that was apparently aided by a drone last week.

“We 100 percent know a cellphone was used or multiple cellphones were used while he was incarcerated, and we believe a drone was used to fly in the tools that allowed him to escape,” Bryan Stirling, the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, said at a news conference on Friday.

Both prison cases are interesting. Whether it’s an escape or a ridiculous number of drugs on the premises, it appears as though drone technology is being used as the scapegoat here. Sure, maybe drones did deliver wire cutters and a certain amount of drugs to prisons in the US and the UK. But ultimately this is a failure of the authorities and those responsible for prison security.

In the UK, where numbers of prison staff have shrunk over recent years in line with the government’s austerity measures, pointing the finger at nefarious drone pilots is a lot more convenient than questioning the policy decisions and widespread corruption that have led to it being easier to get high in prison than out on the streets.

The Wider Problem: Negative Drone Stories Sell

The problem that policy experts and communications directors working in the drone industry are going to have to get used to is this: negative drone stories sell. Dangerous drones make for great headlines. Fear gets clicks.

That’s a shame, especially considering the positive industry stories that have come to light in recent months. Drones really can save lives, whether they are delivering medical supplies in Rwanda, defibrillators in Sweden or searching for survivors on the top floors of burning apartment blocks in London.

DJI’s head of policy and legal affairs Brendan Schulman appeared to have had enough this week, pointing out that certain publications were far too quick to assume that drones were really to blame for the prison break…

He followed up the post with “Oh sorry, that was utter speculation. Like the article, in which every quote actually undermines the sensational headline.” He then posted an image showing that the prison in question was Geo-fenced by DJI, while pointing out that “no-one in the drone industry was asked to comment. ‘May have’ in the headline turned into ‘probably’ in the photo caption.”

“Safety and security problems exist, should be discussed, & are being addressed,” he admitted. “Some are overstated. Unsubstantiated slander of a new industry by news media has consequences.”

In particular, this kind of media reaction has consequences on policy decisions. “I have had policymaker staff members tell me, ‘my boss reads the headlines about drones’ – Is that all she reads before legislating?”

It’s easy to see where Schulman is coming from here. With measures in place including geofencing around prisons and airports, it’s safe to say that DJI is doing what it can to stop rogue pilots.

The conclusion is simple: Instead of looking for attention-grabbing headlines, editors should think twice before jumping the gun and demonizing drone technology without sufficient evidence. We should all be more wary about the impact poorly-chosen words could have on an industry still finding its way.


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