Collisions: How to Break the Cycle of Conjecture, Fear & Drone Negativity

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Earlier this week a collision between a manned aircraft and a drone reportedly occurred in Quebec, Canada. What followed has become painfully familiar to drone industry observers: a sequence of reports driven more by fear and clickbait than reality. So how can we break the cycle?…

First came the reports of the incident. In this case it was actually double whammy: an apparent collision in Canada and yet another ‘near-miss’ close to Gatwick airport, London. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Unfortunately, and as we’ve mentioned before, there continued to be a severe lack of balance in the reporting of these incidents.

That lack of balance starts with asking the simple question: Did it actually happen? Time after time, supposed drone collisions or near-misses have later been found to be nothing of the sort: Plastic bags. Or even bats. These stories, which often contain more speculation than fact, are needlessly damaging to the reputation of the industry and its pilots. For obvious reasons, a lack of sufficient evidence proving these events actually occurred tends to be overlooked in favor of juicy headlines.

To an extent, that is understandable. Publications want readers and dramatic headlines are the way to go. But in the most recent examples, it’s difficult to ignore or question official statements from the Canadian Minister of Transport or the UK Airprox Board, who both went public this week with reports of a collision and a near-miss respectively.

So while more balance is certainly needed, the media can’t be blamed for reporting these incidents when statements are released. The difficulty instead lies in the rhetoric coming from pilot and transport organizations, as well as the vacuum where a sophisticated risk assessment should be.

Ignorance Leaves a Vacuum for Fearmongering & Conjecture

bbc news gatwick drone near miss

The BBC leads with a quote from an airline pilot, suggesting that “130 lives were put at risk” near Gatwick airport in London.

We all know that drones flying close to manned aircraft is a bad idea. And we can all also agree that doing so is needlessly reckless and irresponsible. That’s partly why we’ve supported DJI’s geofencing in the past, even if the system does have its flaws.

However, what’s clearly lacking in the wider media is an understanding of the threat here. But that too is fair enough, because nobody has a clear idea of how dangerous a collision between a drone and a manned aircraft would be. From what we’ve seen so far, the damage has only been minor in nature. But will that trend continue? We don’t really know.

There have been studies of a sort. But the most recent, sponsored by the UK Department for Transport and BALPA, was condemned by drone manufacturers, dubious at best and appeared to be set up to confirm the pre-ordained conclusion that drones were a fatality waiting to happen.

So statements like the one from the pilot above are based on conjecture and, if we’re honest, amount to little more than fearmongering.

collisions between drones and manned aircraft - how to stop the cycle of negativity, fear and conjecture.

DJI was one of the manufacturers critical of the BALPA collision study.

What we need are facts and hard evidence: Data that shows exactly how dangerous drones are to manned aircraft of varying sizes, speeds and altitudes, whichever part of an aircraft they collide with. Armed with that information, reporters, industry professionals and transport authorities can understand the risks drones pose and communicate that message more effectively (and honestly) to the public.

Two problems are ensuring this vicious circle of incident, exaggeration and fear keeps spinning.  The first is the lack of accountability, something which helps a minority of drone pilots continue to fly where they shouldn’t. It also prevents authorities from enforcing rules. The second is the obvious lack of data, which has left too much room for speculation on the part of people who should know better than to speculate.

The Solution: Facts, Enforcement & Accountability

There are genuine fears that the latest run of drone/manned aircraft incidents will lead to harsher regulations being put in place around the world. Depending on these restrictions, the wider commercial industry – not to mention hobbyist pilots – could soon struggle to get off the ground.

So it appears as though the solution required is threefold. The first thing that’s needed is more accountability on the part of pilots. Although registration schemes in the US and abroad have been controversial and not always positively received, they are the first step towards ensuring pilots take responsibility for their flights. But it’s clearly not enough. True accountability needs to happen in real-time, which is one of the reasons that an unmanned traffic management system has been put forward by several parties.

When put in place around airports or disaster zones, this kind of system could effectively broadcast a drone’s location and details to surrounding airspace users and authorities. DJI’s suggested system is called Aeroscope, and takes advantage of the existing communication links between a drone and its controller:

As drones have become an everyday tool for professional and personal use, authorities want to be sure they can identify who is flying near sensitive locations or in ways that raise serious concerns. DJI AeroScope addresses that need for accountability with technology that is simple, reliable and affordable – and is available for deployment now.” – Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President for Policy and Legal Affairs

There’s a strong possibility that a system like this would be vulnerable to hackers and people looking to mess with said authorities. But it would certainly be a step in the right direction for improving accountability around sensitive airspace. It’s fair to say that it would improve the situation in California at the moment, where emergency aircraft are being grounded because a small number of drone pilots want to get a shot of some wildfires.

Once that accountability is in place, that’s where better enforcement comes into play. Empowered by systems such as Aeroscope, law enforcement can apprehend rogue drones and their pilots, and ensure they don’t get away with flying recklessly.

When Will Drone Manufacturers Commision Their Own Safety Study?

The final step, as has been suggested above, is to accurately determine the risk that drones pose to manned aircraft. A neutral, scientific study needs to be conducted away from the influence of pilot’s unions and transport associations. The drone industry desperately needs to arm itself with facts and indisputable data.

Which is probably where industry manufacturers should step up. DJI, Parrot, GoPro… any company with a vested interest in ensuring the drone industry isn’t smothered by fearmongering, conjecture and negative public perception. All should jointly fund a peer-reviewed study. If the results prove that drones aren’t a threat to commercial airliners, we can all go about our business. If they are a threat, perhaps the same manufacturers could alter their designs to appease the public’s concerns.

Either way, what are you waiting for?


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