Drone air­proxes: Fact or myth

Are all the claimed air­proxes fact or fig­ments of imag­i­na­tion?

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words: Mark Dale*

Are all drone air­poxes real or could many sim­ply be imag­ined?

In De­cem­ber 2018 a se­ries of al­leged drone sightings re­sulted in Gatwick air­port clos­ing for the best part of three days, caus­ing im­mense fi­nan­cial loss and dis­rupt­ing the plans of thou­sands of trav­ellers. In April 2015 flights at Manchester air­port were halted for twenty min­utes fol­low­ing a ‘drone sight­ing’. At Heathrow air­port, on 8 Jan­uary 2019, flights were stopped for an hour due to a ‘drone sight­ing’. And pre­vi­ously, on 17 April 2016, an Air­bus pi­lot re­ported that his air­craft had been struck by a drone as it landed at Heathrow.

What do the in­ci­dents all have in com­mon? In each case, there is not a sin­gle shred of ev­i­dence that a drone was ac­tu­ally in­volved. No pho­tos, no videos, no cul­prit, no drone, no dam­age−just eye­wit­ness ac­counts. And a bit of mass hys­te­ria, just like Salem, Mas­sachusetts in the 1690s, when nine­teen supposed witches were hanged.

How have we got to this stage? Well, there are three main play­ers. Firstly, there is the Bri­tish Air­line Pi­lots’ As­so­ci­a­tion

(BALPA). Then there is the UK Air­prox Board (UKAB) and fi­nally, there is ‘the me­dia’.

BALPA dis­liked drones from the in­stant they were in­tro­duced in the UK in 2013, and has sub­se­quently in­vested a great deal of time and ef­fort in try­ing to kill them off in the UK. As part of this, they have is­sued umpteen drone press re­leases and have con­vinced their air­line pi­lot mem­bers that the skies around UK air­ports are in­fested with drones. They have also is­sued de­tailed ad­vice on the re­port­ing pro­ce­dures for pi­lots to follow when they do sight a drone. So we now have air­line pi­lots con­di­tioned to ex­pect to see drones, op­er­at­ing on a hair­trig­ger. And ev­ery ob­ject or flash of light seen out of the cor­ner of their eye is pro­cessed by their brain as a drone−and in goes the ‘drone’ re­port.

The UK Air­prox Board has ex­isted in var­i­ous forms for decades. Its mis­sion is to en­hance air safety by in­ves­ti­gat­ing,

as­sess­ing and re­port­ing ‘the cir­cum­stances, causes and risk of col­li­sion for all Air­prox oc­cur­rences in UK’S airspace’. Pi­lots (or some­times air traf­fic con­trollers) re­port in­stances when two air­craft have come rather too close to each other (i.e. an ‘air­prox’), and the UKAB sec­re­tar­iat col­lects in­for­ma­tion to­gether so that the board can de­lib­er­ate as to the cause etc. This process works ex­tremely well in the ma­jor­ity of cases, as there are two air­craft that have both been iden­ti­fied, with two pi­lots who gen­er­ally both saw the other, and also radar record­ings of the event−and some­times ATC tran­scripts. Whether or not the event ac­tu­ally hap­pened is never in doubt – the is­sue is why it hap­pened. But, by de­fault, the UKAB also got the task of han­dling drone air­proxes. And in al­most ev­ery case there is no in­for­ma­tion other than one pi­lot think­ing he or she saw a drone−the most un­re­li­able form of ev­i­dence; an un­cor­rob­o­rated eye-witness ac­count.

Most of th­ese re­ports come from an air­line pi­lot who has glimpsed some­thing out of the cor­ner of his eye, hav­ing been told by his union to be very wor­ried about drones and to re­port any­thing he sights as be­ing a drone. And with­out any cor­rob­o­rat­ing ev­i­dence, the UKAB sim­ply pub­lishes th­ese drone air­proxes ver­ba­tim, along with all of their other re­ports, mak­ing no dis­tinc­tion be­tween the fully-proven, fully-in­ves­ti­gated air­crafton-air­craft re­ports and th­ese un­re­li­able drone claims. A care­ful read­ing of th­ese drone-sight­ing nar­ra­tive re­ports would lead to a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber (more than ninety per cent) be­ing dis­counted as more likely to have been a party bal­loon, bird, other air­craft etc. (See the work of the Air­prox Re­al­ity Check here: www. air­prox­re­al­i­ty­check.org/)

Even when the re­port­ing pi­lot has said that the ‘ob­ject’ may have been a bal­loon or a drone, the UKAB has al­ways erred on the side of record­ing the in­ci­dent as a drone sight­ing.

The ICAO definition of an air­prox states: ‘an air­prox is a sit­u­a­tion in which, in the opin­ion of a pi­lot or air traf­fic ser­vices per­son­nel, the dis­tance be­tween air­craft as well as their rel­a­tive po­si­tions and speed have been such that the safety of the air­craft in­volved may have been com­pro­mised’. The UKAB has mis­in­ter­preted this, al­low­ing the ac­tual ex­is­tence of the sec­ond air­craft to be en­tirely sub­ject to the pi­lot’s opin­ion, which then leads the board into to­tal un­ques­tion­ing ac­cep­tance of any non­sense sub­mit­ted. The end re­sult is massive over-re­port­ing by the UKAB. And in their fin­ished, stan­dard for­mat re­ports, un­der the head­ings ‘Cause’ and ‘Risk’ they make ap­par­ently de­fin­i­tive pro­nounce­ments about events that they have no proof ever hap­pened−and thereby turn fic­tion into fact. (They are now on record ad­mit­ting they have no proof that any drone was in­volved in a sin­gle one of the more than three hun­dred and fifty drone air­prox re­sults they have pub­lished.)

When it comes to the me­dia, all the news­pa­pers and TV news chan­nels pick up the monthly air­prox re­views. They know that a good ‘drone nar­rowly misses air­liner’ story will sell pa­pers−and none of their jour­nal­ists has the wit or in­cli­na­tion to ques­tion the ve­rac­ity of the story, given that it orig­i­nates from the au­gust UK Air­prox Board. So BALPA, the UKAB and the me­dia have cre­ated a per­fect storm: a self-per­pet­u­at­ing, self­ful­fill­ing drone scare, based on spu­ri­ous data.

As a re­sult of the me­dia’s drone hys­te­ria, the Gov­ern­ment has en­acted leg­is­la­tion to curb drone use. This leg­is­la­tion is about as wrong-headed as it could pos­si­bly be. Firstly, it doesn’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween drone fly­ing and model air­craft fly­ing (which is a

BALPA, the UKAB and the me­dia have cre­ated a per­fect storm

le­git­i­mate, harm­less, pas­time for large num­bers of the pop­u­la­tion, and has been the route into a ca­reer in avi­a­tion for nu­mer­ous pi­lots, air­craft en­gi­neers etc). And se­condly, if there re­ally is a tiny sec­tion of so­ci­ety which is in­tent on caus­ing mis­chief or harm with drones, then reg­is­tra­tion schemes and ex­clu­sion zones will hardly be some­thing they will sign up to. Fly­ing a drone next to an ac­tive air­field with­out ATC per­mis­sion would reck­lessly en­dan­ger air­craft. ‘Reck­lessly en­dan­ger­ing an air­craft’ has been a crime for at least fifty years−so how does mak­ing it dou­bly il­le­gal help?

And now the sit­u­a­tion has got com­pletely out of hand; the se­nior air traf­fic con­trollers at ma­jor air­ports are clos­ing the air­port if a ‘drone’ is re­ported in the vicin­ity. There is no re­al­ity check, no risk as­sess­ment, and there are no guide­lines. So, of course, this in­di­vid­ual is al­ways go­ing to take ‘the safe op­tion’. We have been here be­fore, in 2010, when air­lin­ers all over Europe were grounded by po­ten­tially en­gine-dam­ag­ing vol­canic ash spew­ing from the Ey­jaf­jal­la­jökull volcano in Iceland. The UK CAA ran a rapid re­search pro­gramme to es­tab­lish what the max­i­mum safe level of ash den­sity was, and fly­ing re­sumed. Ob­vi­ously, sim­i­lar clear guid­ance is re­quired re­lat­ing to drones: a good start­ing point would be ‘Do you have a pic­ture of the drone?’ In the ‘pics or it didn’t hap­pen’ era, this is the per­fect sit­u­a­tion for us­ing the so­cial me­dia mantra for pub­lic good.

The drones that are at the heart of the drone myth are DJI Phan­toms. Th­ese were sold in large num­bers in the UK be­tween 2013 and 2017, and pro­gressed through var­i­ous im­proved models to the Phan­tom 4. They are bat­tery-pow­ered, and have a max­i­mum flight time of twenty to thirty min­utes (re­duc­ing to about four­teen min­utes when flown more en­thu­si­as­ti­cally). They are op­ti­mised for aerial pho­tog­ra­phy, so come fully equipped with a high-qual­ity cam­era and sta­bil­is­ing gimbal.

The prin­ci­pal con­cern be­hind the great drone palaver is the fear that a drone could fa­tally dam­age an air­liner. A very dodgy dossier was cre­ated (with some spu­ri­ous test­ing) to sup­port this. But that was all based on a drone the size of the Phan­tom. Guess what? Drone tech­nol­ogy has moved on. Those DJI Phan­toms are largely all land­fill now, re­placed by the Mavic (2016) and the Spark (2017). Th­ese drones are a frac­tion of the size of the Phan­tom

(Phan­tom weight = 1.38kg, Mavic Pro weight = 0.73kg, Spark weight = 0.30kg). Con­se­quently they pose much less risk than the al­ready mi­nus­cule risk that the Phan­tom posed to Com­mer­cial Air Trans­port.

So, we are clos­ing air­ports and caus­ing misery and massive fi­nan­cial loss in or­der to avoid drones that al­most cer­tainly are not there−and if they were there, would pose less dan­ger than most of the wild birds oc­cu­py­ing our skies. It is time for a se­ri­ous re­think. Just about ev­ery­thing we do in life has a mea­sure of risk at­tached−we seem ca­pa­ble of cross­ing the road, rid­ing a bi­cy­cle, driv­ing a car etc know­ing that there is a level of risk. And air­line travel is cer­tainly not risk-free. But some­how the na­tion is to­tally in­ca­pable of tol­er­at­ing the al­most non-ex­is­tent risk of op­er­at­ing an air­port once a sin­gle per­son has ut­tered the drone-word.

Pi­lots cre­ate faulty data by re­port­ing er­ro­neous sightings (the brain ‘sees’ what it ex­pects to see−this is known as top-down pro­cess­ing and/or con­fir­ma­tion bias). The Air­prox Board fails com­pletely to fil­ter out this faulty data−and in fact com­pounds the er­ror by ap­pear­ing to au­then­ti­cate it. The me­dia prop­a­gate the faulty data, be­ing far more in­ter­ested in pub­lish­ing scare sto­ries than in es­tab­lish­ing the truth. The Gov­ern­ment cre­ates more and more reg­u­la­tions. The Po­lice run around in cir­cles. And we all pay the price.

‘Witch’ num­ber one has been pros­e­cuted. A man from Lon­don was fined £2,000 for fly­ing a small, fixed-wing foam model air­craft in a park near Heathrow on Christ­mas Eve 2018. Ob­vi­ously, it was un­be­liev­ably dumb to do this, es­pe­cially a few weeks af­ter Gatwick was closed by a drone scare. But the re­al­ity is that this chap wasn’t fly­ing a drone; he was fly­ing a lit­tle model air­craft made of poly­styrene that posed zero risk to air­lin­ers or any other air­craft. His prosecutio­n has not made the skies any safer – he is just a bit of col­lat­eral dam­age in the hunt for other witches… Doubt­less there will be many more like him.

The me­dia prop­a­gate the faulty data... And we all pay the price

* Mark Dale is a pri­vate pi­lot and has worked in recre­ational avi­a­tion (hang-glid­ing and paraglid­ing) for over thirty years, and was Gen­eral Sec­re­tary of a pan Euro­pean avi­a­tion body. He co-founded a drone im­port­ing busi­ness (now closed) and has owned and flown some twenty types of drone, from hand-size to one-me­tre di­am­e­ter com­mer­cial drones. He is part of Air­prox Re­al­ity Check, which was formed ‘specif­i­cally to in­form the flight safety, reg­u­la­tory, po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity etc on drone air­prox like­li­hood and risk’.

BELOW LEFT: Phan­tom in flight – but how close?

BELOW RIGHT: An operator lends scale to the same drone – tip­ping the scales at 1.38kg, it is not a large air­craft!

ABOVE: DJI Phan­tom. What size is that, you might won­der?

ABOVE: il­lus­tra­tion from an ARC re­port. The crew of an ATR tur­bo­prop (red track) had re­ported to the Air­prox Board that they’d en­coun­tered a quad­copter drone over the Bris­tol Chan­nel at FL78. Not­ing that the pos­si­bil­ity of a drone be­ing able to reach this altitude at that lo­ca­tion would be un­likely, ARC pos­tu­lates from ADS-B data that the ac­tual ob­ject was a dis­tant A320 seen at the same rel­a­tive an­gle

BELOW: kit-built DJI 450 in op­er­a­tion back in 2013, when hys­te­ria had yet to build

Drone rac­ers are sim­ply fol­low­ing in the footsteps of aero­mod­ellers who flew RC- and be­fore that con­trol-line rac­ing and com­bat models

The tiny, 0.3kg (11oz) DJI Spark is re­plac­ing larger drones like the Phan­tom. Operator's hand lends scale

De­signed to op­er­ate closer to the ground (and nowhere near your pri­vate air­craft) an IRC Vor­tex rac­ing drone

De­signed for pro­fes­sional use, the DJI In­spire 1 is likely to be op­er­ated... well, pro­fes­sion­ally!

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