The drone hit that almost certainly wasn’t

A few days ago the press was full with reports about a drone allegedly hitting a plane (see BBC, Telegraph, Guardian). The reports all called for tighter regulations, more controls, they predicted dire scenarios of planes crashing if nothing was done, yet hidden in the articles it was also is mentioned that the plane was ‘believed to be hit’ and that no debris off a drone had been found. In other words, there was no proof of a hit.

I was sceptical of the reports when they first surfaced for a number of reasons. To start with the reports indicated that there was little or no damage to the plane which contradicts the claims of dire consequences should a plane be hit. Surely if the plane had been hit there would have been damage? Next the reported height of 1700 feet when the plane was hit. While not technically impossible it is quite difficult to reach such heights with a standard consumer drone. The newer models of the DJI Phantom (a picture of which is usually used to illustrate the reports) all have built-in height restrictions below the levels indicated in this report and many other sightings. Admittedly these can be hacked and overwritten, also older models don’t have this restriction. However, the ability to reach and maintain such heights is severely limited by in particular the battery capacity of the drones. If if a consumer drone was to reach these heights it almost certainly would only be able to remain at that level for less than a minute before having to descend or even descend automatically to ensure a safe landing with enough battery capacity.

Then the calls for tighter regulations including an US style drone registry. To start with there is already regulation requiring drone operators to only fly at safe heights and not near any airports. I firmly believe that the majority of people flying a drone will follow those rules, but as with pretty much anything there will always be some idiots will break the rules and ruin it for everyone (just think of the people driving vastly in excess of the speed limit or texting while driving, which in many cases has led to deathly accidents). A drone registry would only be helpful if any identifiable debris of a drone had been found, otherwise what would you look for to identify the owner? In this case nothing had been found so there was nothing to identify.

Now the first reports are starting to surface that the alleged hit might not have happened at all or that the alleged drone might have been a plastic bag. There was no damage to the plane at all, not even a dent. Still no debris has been found. All this indicates that almost certainly there was no strike, most likely not even a drone.

Transport Minister Robert Goodwill in my eyes reacts very sensibly and seems to have a very good understanding of the situation. Tighter rules won’t stop terrorists and will only have a limited impact on reckless idiots (see the earlier mentioned speeding and texting). The technical limitations of a drone (e.g. battery capacity) will make it much more likely for terrorists to use other, simpler means to achieve their goals. Of course there should be continued education about the rules and safe flying for all drone users as well as punishment for reckless idiots, but both of that is already happening as various press reports indicate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *