The drone industry may have a PR problem. Elected officials seem frantic to enact regulations we don’t need for problems that don’t currently exist or which are already being addressed. It’s amazing how the media can take a flicker of truth and fan it into a flaming overstatement. It might be helpful to take a deep breath.
Here are three myths that could benefit from a reality check.
Myth #1 – Drones Are Everywhere!
No, they’re not. In fact, they are hardly anywhere.
When is the last time you saw a drone while on your way to work? or on your way home? or on your way to any place?
A simple Google search turns up 273 news sources that report,”Drones are everywhere.” This overstatement often is the article lead. But it isn’t true.
In the last two months, I traveled through large parts of California: downtown Los Angeles, Claremont, the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, Emeryville, Berkeley, San Dimas, Golden Gate Bridge, Pinnacles National Park, Bay Bridge, Balboa Island, La Verne, Riverside, and La Jolla among other places. I biked, hiked, walked, and, (of course) drove. In that two months, I saw 1 drone, a fellow photographing the sunset on Balboa Island. That’s it.
This claim that “drones are everywhere” seems to have stemmed not from anyone’s actual experience, but from a Consumer Technology Association market research study that projected 2015 holiday sales of drones would approach 700,000.
This was inflated to a million in a statement by Rich Swayze of the FAA. “The talking point is that there will be a million drones under people’s Christmas trees this year.” He claimed to have heard the one-million figure “from several sources.”
However, neither the FAA nor anyone else knows how many actually were sold, nor how many made it into the air after being sold. We do know that close to 400,000 drone operators have registered their drones with the the FAA since it has imposed the registration requirement. This compares to 250,000,000 registered trucks and automobiles. It is safe to say cars are everywhere and drones are not.
This myth that “drones are everywhere” fuels two other common misconceptions.
Myth #2 – Drones are a threat to our personal privacy
“A neighbor’s drone flew right onto the balcony and was recording our conversation. It was very unsettling and so I started researching this issue,” said Hannah-Beth Jackson, a former prosecutor and the chair of the California Senate Judiciary Committee.
Oh, give it a rest. Your average drone cannot record a conversation. While it may have had a camera, there is no way Ms. Jackson could know if in fact it was on. In any event, Ms. Jackson has recently filed legislation in California to address this concern. But is it really well founded?
Your run-of-the-mill DJI Phantom or 3DR with a GoPro cannot “spy” on anyone, certainly not without them being aware of it. To capture an image in which people are recognizable, you would need to fly a drone close to someone’s head.
If someone attempts to film you surreptitiously with a standard drone, you will see it and you will hear it.
The reality is that we are filmed practically from the minute we leave our homes. There are cameras on the streets, on phone poles, in shops, stores, and pubic buildings. Cameras are everywhere, but they are not in the skies.
Please watch the following from Adam Andrews at Aeroworks Productions. He does a great job illustrating the “Real Truth” regarding drone photography and privacy.
Let’s start with some numbers that provide some perspective:
Number of people killed in the year 2013
- Automobile accidents – 33,804*
- Guns – 33,636*
- Consumer/Commercial drones – 0
* Source – CDC
Last week, there was an incident at LAX where a drone came within a couple hundred feet of a jet liner. “This is one more incident that could have brought down an airliner, and it’s completely unacceptable. A near-miss of 200 feet should serve as a stark reminder of the dangers posed by reckless drone use,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement quoted in a Washington Post article.
There are two studies that speak to this issue. One is the Bard Study, “Drone Sightings and Close Encounters: An Analysis.” The authors write:
[There were] 921 incidents involving drones and manned aircraft in the national airspace, dating from December 17, 2013 to September 12, 2015. We have organized these reports into two categories: Sightings, incidents in which a pilot or an air traffic controller spotted a drone flying within or near the flight paths of manned aircraft though not posing an immediate threat of collision, and Close Encounters, where a manned aircraft came close enough to a drone that it met the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of a “near midair collision” or close enough that there was a possible danger of collision, even if an exact drone-to-aircraft distance was not reported.
This study received a great deal of press attention. Here some examples:
- Drones are inviting disaster: “It’s only a matter of time before . . . Salon
- Disaster awaits in the skies above NYC – NY Daily News
- Report cites 241 near collisions between pilots, drones – Fox News
Those headlines take a fact and sensationalize it. An actual scientific study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University reports:
In a 2015 investigation, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) called the validity of these near miss reports into question. Of the 764 near miss incidents recorded by the FAA, the AMA found only 27, or 3.5 percent, were genuine UAS near misses. Instead, the FAA had been counting simple sightings as near misses—even when the operators were fully compliant with current UAS regulation. The FAA has also counted several cases where the pilot had explicitly reported that it was not a near miss, and more than a dozen cases where the flying object was officially unidentified. The AMA therefore accused the FAA of creating fuel for sensationalized and inaccurate media reports which, with the benefit of hindsight, helped build momentum for its rulemaking. (Emphasis ours)
They conclude that:
. . . one damaging incident will occur no more than every 1.87 million years of 2kg UAS flight time. We further estimate that 6.12×10−8 collisions that cause an injury or fatality to passengers on board an aircraft will occur every 100,000 hours of 2kg UAS flight time, or once every 187 million years of operation. This appears to be an acceptable risk to the airspace.
There are two points to be made here. One is that the risk to commercial airlines from consumer drones is overstated. The second, and equally important, is that regulations are already in place. The FAA prohibits flying within 5 miles of an airport without clearance. Some areas such as Washington DC are completely off limits. The issue is not regulation; it’s enforcement, and it is not clear who is tasked with enforcement.
Unfortunately, these myths about the dangers of drones are skewing public perceptions and to some degree stifling opportunity here in the United States. That is unfortunate. For all this hoopla over the public safety risks of drones, 0ne might think that the general public would be much more alarmed to learn that more firearms were confiscated from travelers by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration at American airports in 2015 than in any other year on record. 2,653 firearms were seized from travelers in 2015.
Do drones present risks? No more than anything else, and federal officials need to get in front of the issue and deal with it effectively. Drones are not a problem; they are an opportunity.