The UK drone industry has taken a beating in recent weeks. First, the head of Unmanned Traffic Management at NATS, Andy Sage, took it upon himself to categorize drone pilots as either “clueless, careless, and criminal” in a parliamentary hearing – a mistake he has since apologized for.
And then on July 1st, the BBC aired a documentary titled ‘Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones’, in which high-risk specialist and former marine Aldo Kane investigated the scale of the threat drones pose to our airports and skies – from rogue hobbyists to determined terrorists.
Unfortunately, the BBC’s documentary fell short of the editorial rigor the drone community would have hoped for. Within what was admittedly an entertaining and interesting hour of TV, there were a few misleading and unbalanced segments that will do further damage to the reputation of drone technology among the general public.
UK readers can watch the documentary online here.
The BBC is not known for sensationalism. As a publicly funded broadcaster, there are strict guidelines imposing balance and impartiality, from sports coverage to politics to current events.
That’s also the case for the BBC’s factual documentaries, which strive to achieve those same standards while being informative and entertaining.
Unfortunately, the BBC’s Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones, in which risk specialist and former marine Aldo Kane investigates the threat drones pose to manned aircraft, falls short of those standards.
Kane explores a number of different issues facing authorities tasked with combating rogue drones: the potential damage caused by a collision with a manned aircraft, counter-drone technologies, the difficulty in using a gun to shoot down drones, the weaponization of the technology, and the developments underway to make drone flight more autonomous and sophisticated.
As well as a marked lack of insight from drone industry specialists, there was much more focus on the severity of a drone incident than on the likelihood of it actually happening. A proper risk assessment needed to factor in both. The BBC’s ‘risk specialist’ didn’t really do that.
Gatwick comes to the fore
Central to the documentary was the chaos at Gatwick airport in December 2018. Police and the various authorities remain convinced multiple drones were the cause of the disruption. But there has also been the admission that they could be mistaken over that key fact.
What we know for sure is that there should be room for healthy scepticism whenever a drone is claimed to have been involved in an incident. Unless there is proof beyond the famously unreliable testimony of eyewitnesses.
Despite being the foundation for much of the documentary, the possibility that Gatwick was just an embarrassing game of Chinese Whispers was never explored.
Setting the scene with Airprox figures
The documentary used the rise in near-misses between drones and manned aircraft in UK airspace to illustrate the growing threat that drones pose. The number of near-misses has gone from 0 in 2013 to 125 in 2018.
On paper that’s a huge leap. But the BBC failed to mention that this figure is relatively low despite hundreds of thousands of drone sales during that period. These near misses are an exception to the rule, not the actions of the majority.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that those figures are taken from the UK’s Airprox Board, the objective of which is to record, in the opinion of a pilot or air traffic services personnel, incidents in which the distance between aircraft has been tight enough to compromise safety.
Every incident is therefore entirely subjective. And there has never been proof beyond witness testimony that a near miss between a drone and a plane has taken place. Spotting a drone while travelling at high speed and high altitude is no mean feat. According to a report from Airprox Reality Check, “UK Airprox Board are misclassifying 80% of reports as ‘drone’ instead of ‘Unknown Object.”
See also, 5 Times It Wasn’t A Drone After All.
Another collision experiment without context
To explore the damage a collision could cause, the BBC crew filmed a dramatic collision experiment in which mashed up drone parts were smothered in foam and fired at an old wing from a business jet designed to carry a handful of people.
Unsurprisingly, this caused some serious-looking damage and highlighted the difference between a bird strike and a drone strike.
Yes, shooting the component parts of a drone into an old business jet wing at 250mph makes for good television. But we know already that drone strikes are likely to be more damaging than bird strikes, thanks to ongoing FAA and ASSURE research. If that was the point the team wanted to make, what was the point of this segment other than to add a needless sense of doom?
The documentary also quoted the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) – whose sponsored research in this area has been controversial and widely criticized – as saying that a collision of this kind could result in an aircraft crashing. There was a surprising lack of balance here and no voice to challenge those assumptions. Given the implication of the test we had witnessed, there is no excuse for that.
Once the damage had been done (to the industry, not the plane wing) presenter Aldo Kane gave this interview, in which he admits the collision experiment was not a fair test and appears to distance himself from its inclusion in the documentary. Why was it included then?
A closer look at the footage appears to show that the material fired out of the cannon included extra rods to maximize the load upon impact. It was not even the same as the drone we watched the presenter smash up in preparation for the test.
Why do the BBC keep letting people con' the public about drones? pic.twitter.com/tJRAZLxir0
— National Drone Operators (@drone_operators) July 2, 2019
“It’s not if this happens…but when…”
The idea that a terrible aviation accident involving a drone is inevitable is the central claim of the BBC’s Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones documentary.
And it’s an idea worth exploring. Despite the many safety features developed by drone manufacturers, the educational programs brought in to prevent drone pilots from being reckless and the sophisticated counter-drone industry emerging, there is a reality the drone industry must accept.
This technology has been and will continue to be weaponized for nefarious purposes, in the Middle East and, reportedly, in an attack on President Maduro in Venezuela. It may well be a matter of time before a terrorist incident involving a weaponized drone takes place on UK soil. Or in America for that matter.
But when it does happen, it will not be the fault of hobbyist or professional pilots. It will not be the fault of pioneering manufacturers. And it will not be the fault of regulations that aren’t strict enough. It will be the fault of the individual behind the controls, whose desire to inflict suffering on others is in turn the responsibility of the security services tasked with detecting and apprehending such attacks.
The one minute out of 60 in the documentary given to the positive uses of drone technology does not reflect where we actually stand. Drones are already saving lives all the time, on top of bringing value to a whole range of industries. This sensationalist focus on the worst possible outcome, which may or may not actually happen, is needless, irresponsible and unbalanced.
The BBC’s role is to provide a balanced assessment of risk based on a combination of the severity and the likelihood of an incident. It failed.
How has the industry responded to the BBC documentary?
Unsurprisingly, drone industry stakeholders have reacted negatively towards the BBC documentary.
ARPAS UK, the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems that supports and acts on behalf of the UK drone community, said the documentary “focussed heavily on the illegal and malevolent use of drones in UK airspace, exaggerated the risks and presented a one-sided view that has the potential to harm the livelihood of ARPAS members.”
The statement continues: “ARPAS acknowledges that mid-air collision, unauthorised flight within restricted and sensitive airspace as well as deliberate nefarious use, are the most credible causes of a serious incident involving a drone but a balanced assessment of risk is always a combination of severity and likelihood. ARPAS believes the programme overemphasised the former and neglected to realistically assess the latter.
As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has a responsibility to provide its viewers with balanced reporting which, on this occasion, we believe it failed to do. ARPAS is the UK’s trade association representing the unmanned aviation industry and we would hope that in the future, programme-makers ask us to contribute in order to gain a more balanced view.
ARPAS vigorously supports the legal, safe and legitimate uses of drones and strongly believes this represents the vast majority of recreational users and all the commercial users amongst its members for whom it will continue to advocate.”
DJI’s director of marketing and corporate communications, Barbara Stelzner, has published an open letter on behalf of the Chinese manufacturer criticizing the BBC documentary. DJI also claims to have actively attempted to add more balance to BBC programs and offered interviews with key personnel.
“DJI was approached by both the Panorama and Horizon production teams and provided plenty of input including an interview with our Head of Policy for Europe. However, almost none of the material was included in either programme. We have to assume this is because the BBC ultimately preferred to boost viewing figures by focusing on sensational, high-risk scenarios that are vanishingly rare or almost impossible, while ignoring evidence that drone technology is safe and that the drone industry itself has implemented various features to mitigate the risks described. This cannot be construed as balanced or impartial in anyone’s book.”
“We find it, quite frankly, unfair and incredibly biased that a documentary looking at drones does not include a response from DJI, any drone manufacturer or any drone association such as the Drone Manufacturers’ Alliance Europe or ARPAS.
We would welcome the opportunity to work with the BBC on a ‘Drones For Good’ documentary which would seek to go some way in addressing the balance in a currently extremely one-sided, negative media landscape. We also request that next time a BBC unit is working on a drone-related programme, our voice and those of our industry peers be included at length and in detail, so that the programme can fulfill the BBC’s mission to be an impartial, independent, accurate and reliable source of information.”
You can read DJI’s statement in full, here.