Regular Hackaday readers will have noted a succession of stories following the reports of drones in the air over British airports and in proximity to aircraft. We’ve consistently asked for a better quality of investigation and reporting into these cases, because so far the absence of reported tangible evidence of a drone being present casts doubt on the validity of the official reaction. For too long the official records of air proximity incidents have relied upon a shockingly low standard of proof when apportioning blame to drone operators, and this situation has contributed to something of a panic over the issue.
It seems that some members of the British drone flying community are on the case though. Airprox Reality Check are a group analysing air proximity reports and linking them to contemporary ADS-B and weather records to identify possible explanations. They have devised a rating system based upon a number of different metrics in an attempt to quantify the reliability of a particular report, and they are tabulating their analysis of air proximity reports on a month by month basis. This includes among many analyses such gems as Airprox Report #2019046, in which an Embraer 170 flying at 9000 feet and 20 km offshore reported a drone in close proximity. The Airprox Reality Check analysis points out that no known drone could manage that feat, and refers to a passing Boeing 737 revealed through ADS-B data as a more likely culprit.
in all cases UKAB has no confirmation that a drone has flown close to an aircraft other than the report made by the pilot(s). Similarly, other than from the report of the pilot(s), UKAB has no confirmation that a drone was involved.
This confirms the view of the multirotor and drone community that has been reported by Hackaday in the past, that the whole British drone panic has been based upon unreliable and uncorroborated reports from eyewitnesses with little direct experience of multirotors. If any irresponsible drone operator is flying into close proximity with aircraft or otherwise into protected airspace then it goes without saying that they should be prosecuted, yet it seems that the community is being punished as though this had happened when the reality is that no such acts are proven to have occurred.
The mass media are funny in the way they deal with new technology. First it’s all “Wow, that’s Cool!”, then it’s “Ooh, that’s scary”, and finally it’s “BURN THE WITCH!”. Then a year or so later it’s part of normal life and they treat it as such. We’ve seen the same pattern repeated time and time again over the years.
Seasoned readers may remember silly stories in the papers claiming that the Soviets could somehow use the technology in Western 8-bit home computers for nefarious purposes, since then a myriad breathless exclusives have predicted a youth meltdown which never materialised as the inevitable result of computer gaming, and more recently groundless panics have erupted over 3D printing of gun parts. There might be a British flavour to the examples in this piece because that’s where it is being written, but it’s a universal phenomenon wherever in the world technologically clueless journalists are required to fill column inches on technical stories.
The latest piece of technology to feel the heat in this way is the multirotor. Popularly referred to as the drone, you will probably be most familiar with them as model-sized aircraft usually with four rotors. We have been fed a continuous stream of stories involving tales of near-misses between commercial aircraft and drones, and there is a subtext in the air that Something Must Be Done.
Are multirotors unfairly being given bad press? It certainly seems that way as the common thread among all the stories is a complete and utter lack of proof. But before we rush to their defence it’s worth taking a look at the recent stories and examining their credibility. After all if there really are a set of irresponsible owners flying into commercial aircraft then they should rightly be bought to book and it would do us no favours to defend them. So let’s examine each of those incident reports from that BBC story.