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Media and Drones: Scary Sells Better Than Safety

Last updated on

December 11, 2019


    Where does the media stand on drones? 


    With TV programmes entitled “The Gatwick Drone Attack” and Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones” coming from the esteemed and proudly impartial BBC, it’s perhaps no surprise that the UAV industry tends to get a bad press across the wider media as well. The irony, of course, is that at the same time many of those outlets are also boasting ‘amazing’ footage captured by unmanned aircraft showing insights into breaking news stories or another showcase of stunning aerial photography.

    As an industry, we shouldn’t feel singled out by this as it could be seen as a reflection of living in a digital age, where journalistic integrity is disregarded in favour of online views. Simply put: scary sells or bad news is good news. Therefore, don’t be surprised to see clickbait headlines such as “Drone Loses Power: You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!”.  Of course, the story itself would most likely be a much duller account of the redundancy features kicking in and the Return to Home function bringing the craft safely back to its take-off point. Most recently drones are being used as a threat in environmental protests like Extinction Rebellion to shut down airports and cause massive disruption, read about it here. Extinction Rebellion planned their protest using cheap off-the-shelf drones. The truth is anyone who’s looked at anything in that £50 ‘fun flyer’ range will know that those drones have a battery life of a few minutes and a transmission range of maybe 15 metres.

    Alternatively, you could put it down to a lack of awareness, don’t forget that drone technology in its current form is still an emerging market. So, the wider public won’t be as comfortable with the idea of flying robots packed with HD cameras. The same goes for the media and that’s not a criticism; you can’t expect them to be experts at advancements in aerial technology. It’s going to take a while to educate the world about drones and the many great things that they can do. Just look at the vast amount of #dronesforgood cases, #dronessavelives or read these blog posts for a bit of an overview.


    Near Miss-Information

    online media


    Things aren’t helped by how drones seem to have become the default setting for any airborne anomaly. Only last month an airline pilot flying 7,000ft over the Scottish Borders reported seeing a drone within 100ft (30m) of the aircraft, which would make for a mass-spread ‘near-miss’ news story and all of the potential horror that so nearly occurred.

    Of course, the reality is that it’s highly unlikely anyone travelling at those kinds of speeds could identify anything that likely to be less than a metre in diameter flashing past a windscreen – research suggests there’s perhaps a 10% chance of being able to do so in optimal conditions. Not to mention the likelihood of encountering a drone 7,000ft in the air, when the legal limit is 400ft and not many UAVs can boast the capability of flying that high.

    Unfortunately, the truth often comes out, if only the damage caused by the initial story hadn’t already cut so deep. Seasoned drone pilots will recall the 2016 saga about the ‘drone collision’ with a plane at Heathrow Airport which turned out to be a plastic bag.

    Elsewhere near-misses falsely attributed to drones have turned out to be everything from bats to balloons. Commenting earlier in the year on these incidents in general, Brendan Schulman, DJI Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs, said: ”This recent rash of unconfirmed drone sightings may reflect the power of suggestion more than actual use of drones at airports.”

    So, in many ways, the news stories are simply fuelling more news-spreading as the message is increasingly echoed that any UFO must be a UAV. Let’s not forget the whole Gatwick furore either. Here we are nearly a year later and there’s still no clear evidence that a drone was even involved. But, of course, the story made the headlines, drones were the bad guy, and any kind of ‘it wasn’t a drone after all’ didn’t make it to press.


    The Truth is Out There

    media truth

    It’s worth noting that most of these stories come from Airprox Board reports, which are largely first-hand accounts from the pilots involved, and all are taken at face value. The BBC’s “Britain’s Next Air Disaster?” programme quoted such a near-miss with a plane above the Shard building in London, which DJI pointed out was never proven.

    In an open letter to the BBC, DJI’s Director of Marketing and Corporate Communication, Dr Barbara Stelzner, said: “In all cases, UK Airprox Board (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.”

    As a side-note, the letter also explains how DJI was invited to be involved in the programme, along with the ‘Gatwick Drone Attack’ show to offer balance. But, according to Dr Stelzner, “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.”

    In contrast, the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) published its latest report just last month. It covers all areas of aviation but there only seven incidents involving unmanned aircraft, compared to 14 manned incidents. And of those seven, four involved the same power issue with DJI’s Matrice 210 models at the end of last year, which saw the craft give falsely high battery readings and therefore lose power before the operator would have safely expected. Later, the fault was investigated by both DJI and the CAA and subsequently fixed with firmware updates.


    The Reality

    drones for good

    The reason why most of these stories turn out to be false is that the vast majority of drone operators have great respect for their obligation to fly safely. Even if they’re not trained by professionals to earn their PfCO, there are still plenty of practical courses and online support to help guide the way. Many Commerical Pilots are doing some great things with drones as well such as assisting with Search and Rescue missions – stories which don’t get half as much publicity as an unproven ‘near-miss’.

    This is evidenced by those AAIB reports, which included a drone being deployed by the emergency services to search for a missing person and a surveillance flight above a heathland fire. During the incident, the drone delivered live pictures to the ground team to help monitor and combat the spread.


    Change for the Better

    Flight Test

    Ultimately, while bad news still sells across the media, whether proven to be true or not, it’s still going to happen. As long as people fear the potential use of drones to do harm then they’re going to click on news stories. It is up to everyone involved in the drone industry to continue to spread a more positive message; to showcase the thousands of life-saving and world-changing applications that drones can be used for.


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