Recently 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 favour 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 Fear-mongering & Conjecture
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.
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 Commission 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?
Written by Malek Murison
New Zealand's commercial drone manufacturers are successfully finding niche markets as the potential for the unmanned flying machines takes off. While unable to compete on price with large Chinese drone makers, several Kiwi companies are finding specialised uses for drones, which are already saving business time and money.
Currently, 70 per cent of commercial drones are used for aerial photography, 8 per cent for power line inspection and 2 per cent for agricultural work, according to information provided by UAVNZ. The industry body's chairman, Andy Grant, said there was "huge" potential for drone use in core New Zealand industries like agriculture, construction and forestry.
For example, Grant's company ASG Technologies has developed a drone capable of carrying out forestry work that would ordinarily take six workers up to an entire day in some six minutes.
Instead of requiring workers to haul 1km of steel rope above felled trees in order for them to be collected, ASG's drone - one of the largest industrial drones in the country -- is able to carry 14kg of rope the entire distance in a single flight. The savings in time and money were, clearly, enormous, Grant said. The drone was currently being used by forestry company Hancock Forest Management.
Drones are also being used to inspect tall buildings and other inaccessible infrastructure, something that had proven extremely useful in the Christchurch rebuild. Farmers, too, could be saving hours and thousands of dollars using drones for spraying, observation, stock management and, potentially, preventing cattle rustling by automatically sending out a drone when an animal is stolen from its paddock.
"The agricultural stuff, when you consider New Zealand, that is really, really low-hanging fruit," said Grant.
New Zealand companies were also looking at the emerging technology of "tethered" drones; aircraft connected to an operating box by a thin wire allowing them to fly for hours, even days. without needing the battery to be charged. Another growing sector was survey work, using drones to produce 3D models accurate to within a few centimetres with the aircraft taking an image every few of seconds. "This technique was used to produce a 3D model of an air accident site and to quickly map the relative location of all of the crashed aircraft parts," Grant said.
The software could also seamlessly stitch together thousands of high-resolution pictures to create images of vast areas.
The real estate industry is already well and truly on board with drones due to their aerial image-taking capabilities. One real estate company had become registered with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and established an in-house drone operation. "An aerial overview is quickly becoming a required offering in real estate marketing."
Drones, often associated with the United States military, have their sinister side and Grant said his company was working on technology that could be utilised by correctional facilities to disable drones carrying nefarious goods. "If you can imagine a drone that could carry a kilo's payload, and you'd get one of those for about $10,000 these days. You could potentially set that up to launch it autonomously from anywhere in the world with the push of a button and it would fly over a corrections facility and maybe drop a loaded pistol or something in the middle of the yard, or a kilo of drugs. It's a real issue."
Another risk was gangs or criminals using drones to carry out crimes or attack foes without being detected. Grant declined to elaborate on what this drone-disabling technology involved at this time. The next major breakthrough in drone technology would be when drones were allowed to work beyond the line of sight of operators, something that is being trialled in a dedicated drone airspace in Canterbury. "The speed of development in the drone-sector is breath-taking," Grant said. "The drones themselves are almost daily increasing in payload capacity, endurance and range. Their on-board sensors are increasing in sophistication and they are becoming progressively more autonomous." Within 20 to 30 years drones the size of 787 aircraft would come into existence, he said.
There are two major drone manufacturers in this country: Altus Intelligence, which provides drones to American news giant CNN, and Raglan company Aeronavics, which has been successfully creating drones that perform specialist tasks, Grant said. There are also a number of smaller and hobbyist drone makers that regularly come up with new and innovative technologies. New Zealand's regulations around drones use are more relaxed than elsewhere in the world due to updated civil aviation rules introduced in 2015.
"If you could dream it, and prove you could do it safely with a drone, you were allowed to do it," Grant said. To date, the CAA has issued certificates to 92 New Zealand companies to operate drones. Airways New Zealand, the country's air traffic controllers, has also been involved in creating the foundations of a drone traffic management system.
I began my career as a builder and progressed through to the owner of Mojo NZ Ltd. The first drone I owned is to this day lodged in a tree on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. We now provide drones to all industries from toys to racing drones to professional camera drones. This blog is a look at ourselves and the industry in general.