In the UK, much has been made about the sharp rise in ‘near-misses’ between drones and manned aircraft.
It’s highly likely that yes, the growing number of drones in the sky is causing more UAVs to fly too close to commercial airliners. However, the UK Airprox Board’s worrying figures are based on pilot testimony and eyewitness accounts, rather than concrete evidence or detailed investigations.
The result of that methodology is inflated figures and, in turn, an inflated sense of the problem. We know that eyewitness accounts – particularly those at altitude and high speed – can be unreliable. And it certainly doesn’t help that drones have become the go-to identifier in any aerial situation where there’s an element of uncertainty.
Part of the problem is that these incident reports are one-sided. And one reason for that skew is the fact that drone pilots in the UK don’t have a suitable way to report unexpected incidents, whether it’s a near-miss with a helicopter or an actual crash.
Important lessons can be learned from every incident, which is why manned aviation has long taken the approach of ensuring Mandatory Occurrence Reports (MOR) and Voluntary Occurrence Reports (VOR) are submitted after the fact.
Today, UTM provider Altitude Angel has launched a ‘just culture’ reporting system to help drone pilots achieve the same level of event reporting.
According to Philip Binks, Altitude Angel’s Head of Air Traffic Management, “The wider drone industry is behind manned aviation when it comes to reporting unplanned events and unusual episodes, but it doesn’t have to be so. Safety will be key to ensuring the industry’s expansion, so we should take the lessons learned in manned aviation and adopt ‘just culture’ reporting across UTM.”
Currently, drone pilots in the UK have to use the CAA’s system for reporting incidents, which has the same process and questions manned aircraft pilots have to go through.
“The CAA’s reporting system has been designed for occurrences involving manned aircraft, which can require a great deal of technical and operational data, to be completed by experienced aviators,” said Binks.
“When compared to two passenger aircraft nearly colliding, a drone operator may feel their ‘little’ incident, accident or episode is not worth reporting in the same way, so they simply don’t bother. But there are lessons to be learned in every instance which is why our system has drone users at its heart.”
Learning lessons from the little things
Altitude Angel today outlined an industry-wide reporting system that will use an anonymous web portal to give drone operators a platform to share their experience when something unexpected occurs. The company plans to collate the findings before making vertical-specific data available to the wider industry.
Drone pilots will be redirected to the CAA website should the incident be serious enough to warrant a VOR submission.
Binks added: “Reporting an unexpected event is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card for irresponsible or criminal behaviour, but it will allow considerate pilots and operators to learn from others and take measures to prevent, or at the very least vastly reduce, the chances of the same type of event happening again. This responsible attitude to reporting can only reduce incidents and improve safety.”
A self-reporting system for drone pilots isn’t going to reduce ‘near-misses’ overnight or prevent the UK Airprox Board from inflating the severity of that particular problem. But it’s certainly a positive step toward encouraging a culture of responsibility and accountability for drone pilots.
As Tim Johnson, Policy Director at the CAA says, “It is vital the drone community benefits from the ability to share and learn from safety data as the rest of the aviation industry does.”