News and Commentary. Drones seem to be a particular target of the popular press. While business journals tout prediction after prediction of the growth of the industry, consumer news outlets are doing their part to spread fear and distrust of drones.
After reports of a drone nearly colliding with a passenger jet at Heathrow (later determined to be a plastic bag); illustrated headlines about a drone crash in Mozambique (that one turned out to be a faulty airplane part); and numerous other headlines about near death experiences with drones that weren’t; you might think the mainstream press would want to wait a bit before declaring disaster.
In the latest story to come out of the UK, the headline from the Mirror reads: Drone almost brought down RAF helicopter when it flew just feet from the pilot. The Telegraph shouts: £60m RAF Chinook helicopter in near miss with drone as pilot says collision could have downed aircraft. And the UK’s Aiprox Board – the body responsible for investigating incidents in the airspace – has not helped matters by saying that a collision was avoided “by providence alone”: that bit was quoted almost everywhere.
A little investigation (like reading the actual Airprox report) might have resulted in more boring headlines. (Acknowledged, that’s not the goal of most news stories.) Something like “Chinook Helicopter Pilot Saw and Avoided Drone” might have fit the bill.
There seems no doubt in the pilot’s mind that they actually saw a drone, and that it was flying at 2,000 feet. The drone was apparently noticed on the radar map by the approach controller at the airport and communicated to the pilot. The pilot avoided the drone. However, he felt compelled to comment that “whilst subjective and hard to accurately assess, this style of UAV could have caused considerable damage that could have lead to the loss of the aircraft if it had impacted either the transmissions and associated hydraulic pipes, the rotor system or the cockpit.” There, apparently, is the source for the “Almost brought down an RAF helicopter” headline.
The Airprox Board also made efforts to maximize the situation, while forced to acknowledge that there hadn’t been a real collision. The report states: “Some members considered the separation was such that collision had only been avoided by providence, but the majority felt that the Chinook pilot had seen the drone in time to take control and therefore that some form of avoiding action had been taken, albeit with a significantly reduced margin of safety.”
These efforts to make drone sightings more dramatic are actually deliberate on the part of the board. “Again, this is another example of a growing problem throughout the skies in which we operate – inappropriate use of drones leading to potentially dangerous incidents,” says the report. “…It was through good evaluation by the controllers and reactions from the aircrew that eliminated the chance of a collision occurring. However, with publicity increasing as to the dangers involved with the operation of drones alongside manned aircraft, these examples of close calls will hopefully reduce.”
It may not be a good approach. While recreational drone operators certainly need to be aware of the rules – and more responsible about following them – spreading fear about the drone industry won’t help. An increase in commercial use, and a greater number of experienced and legal operators in the air, might do more to increase safety and let rogue operators know when they’re out of line. More professional drones, integration into air traffic control systems and greater adoption of technology fixes for issues of drones flying to close to larger aircraft will reduce these incidents: headlines won’t help.