We’ve brought you a variety of stories over the years covering the interface between multirotor fliers and the law, and looked at the credibility gap between some official incident reports and the capabilities of real drones. In the news this week is a proposed new law in front of the British House of Commons that would bring in a licensing scheme for machines weighing over 250 g, as well as new powers to seize drones. We’ve previously told you about the consultation that led up to it, and its original announcement.
As a British voter with some interest in the matter, I decided to write to my Member of Parliament about it, and since my letter says what I would have written to cover the story anyway it stands below in lieu of the normal Hackaday article format. If you are a British multirotor flier this is an issue you need to be aware of, and if you have any concerns you should consider raising them with your MP as well.
To: Victoria Prentis MP, Member of Parliament for Banbury, Houses of Parliament, London
I am writing to you today to express some concerns about the atmosphere surrounding the proposed bill to control the use of drones in the UK. I am a technical journalist whose remit sometimes covers drone stories in depth, and there are aspects of this particular one that I find rather troubling. I am not a drone flier beyond having bought a plastic toy drone to understand some of the technology, so I have no particular axe to grind.
As reported, this bill will bring in new police powers aimed at the illegal use of drones, for example when they are used for smuggling into prisons, and in establishing statutory no-fly zones around airports and the like. There will be new police powers to seize drones, and there will be a new drone test required to fly any machine weighing over 250 g. This comes against a backdrop of reported drone incidents in which there are said to have been near misses with aircraft. The Aviation Minister was interviewed about fostering innovation in the drone industry, and in a sense she’s right. The proposals will provide a boost to the drone industry, but it will be in Shenzhen rather than the UK as the Chinese manufacturers pour all their innovations into the 250 g class.
It goes without saying that the use of drones by criminals should be cracked down upon, and hard. It also goes without saying that the flying of drones close to aircraft should be illegal, and those who do it should be prosecuted. Lock them up, throw away the key, all the clichés. But it is with the case of proximity to aircraft that my concern lies, because based on my research into air proximity incident reports over the years I believe that there has been some extremely irresponsible work on the matter on the part of the authorities, the pilots trade union, and particularly on the part of the media.
To understand this, it’s first worth describing what a drone is, and what it is capable of. By “drone”, I am referring to a machine with several fixed-attitude vertical propellers mounted around its fuselage, that are under the control of a microcomputer that maintains the craft’s position by varying the power to each propeller. The motors are all electric, and all such machines run on battery power. Even the largest drones use batteries, not unlike the ones you will have in your laptop. Because they can’t glide like a fixed-wing aircraft can, they can only stay in the air by having all motors running continuously. This means that all battery powered drones have a finite time in the air dictated by the weight of the battery pack they can carry, and that time is measured in minutes rather than hours. Flying at any sort of speed decreases this time hugely, as does flying at altitude because as the air gets thinner the propellers have to do more work for the same thrust. Thus while it’s possible for some drones to break the 400 m altitude limit reported as being in the new bill, in many cases getting back down again after any time up there before the batteries are exhausted would present a significant challenge.
Reading air proximity incident reports and analysing the claims made for the craft sighted, it is extremely difficult to reconcile them with the appearance and performance of real drones as I have outlined in the previous paragraph. There are descriptions of drones flying at airliner altitudes and speeds, of drones seemingly capable of manoeuvres even the RAF in their jet fighters couldn’t perform. Even the low altitude sightings stretch credibility, for example the Gatwick sighting that is often reported would have required a drone with excessive battery life and the ability to evade surveillance at one of the most heavily policed sites in the country. The one common thread that ties all the UK incident reports together is that at no point has any tangible evidence of a real drone been produced, no wreckage, no photographs, and no video. You will know that airliners now have video cameras all round, as a typical seat-back display now allows passengers to watch the view outside the plane, yet there has been no video evidence produced of these incidents. Indeed, the only incident proven to have caused a collision, onto a plane approaching Heathrow, was later concluded to have involved a plastic bag.
Ever since the dawn of flight, pilots have from time to time seen unidentified objects. They have variously been attributed to our wartime foes, to the Soviets, to alien invaders, and now the explanation of choice seems to be drones. Just as there were never any foo fighters or aliens discovered, now we have no tangible evidence of any drones beyond the same pilot eyewitness reports we had when the aliens were in the frame. To take these stories as irrefutable proof of drone involvement shows a breathtaking level of irresponsibility by the CAA, and I am therefore concerned that this and the poorly-informed media reporting on the issue will cause a bad law to be enacted. I predict that I will be writing stories about heavy-handed police confiscating legally held and flown drones at will, and meanwhile the criminals will continue to do what they always have done, and take no notice of the law.
Responsible drone users need good and well-enforced laws in place just as the general public does, to stop criminals and dangerous idiots using drones. I am concerned that the poor handling of incident reports by the CAA and the misinformed reporting on the issue will have an undue influence on this one, and cause it to fall short of being a good law. Please can I therefore ask you to remember when it comes before you, that it is the criminals who should be in your sights rather than the responsible users.
If you would like to know more about drones, are interested in seeing one in action, or indeed are interested in having a go yourself, it would be very easy to introduce you to responsible professional fliers who could satisfy your curiosity.
I know what you are thinking, that there is no point in doing this as they will inevitably take no notice. And there is an element of truth in that, because you can have no doubt that this law is going to be enacted. But there are two reasons to still do it, first of all to present a reasonable and balanced case as to why the evidents from the pilots should not entirely be trusted, and secondly to inflate my MP’s postbag on the issue. Surprisingly MPs are not deluged with mail on issues like this one, and it will not take many letters to get them thinking about it.
Just one thing though, if you do write a letter to your MP, don’t cut-and-paste mine. They’re wise to that trick.
Palace of Westminster image: Diliff [CC BY-SA 2.5].