Drone Safety: Looking to the future with DJI

This article is a summary and analysis of a DJI white paper, published here. we’d urge everyone to go have a read of the whole thing, as it contains a lot of insight.

The safety issues around drones are a hot topic at the moment. After the incident at Gatwick, the issue got propelled into the public view. This meant regulators, politicians and manufacturers all started weighing in on where they thought the rules should go.

In our view, drones are a major force for good. In recent times, drones have been used at high profile incidents like the Notre Dame fire, as well as being used widely in search and rescue across the world. DJI, the world’s largest drone manufacturer, has stated that at least 231 people have been rescued from danger by their drones alone. Emergency services all around the UK are adopting drones for use, as they offer a more flexible option for an aerial presence than helicopters.

rescue drone usage with watersafe UK
Our MD Sam flying a drone for a search and rescue team

Background on drone safety

The issue of airspace, and hence drone, regulation is one that has been rapidly rising in importance in the past few years as drone use has exploded. This has lead to increasing friction between hobbyist drone users and aviation authorities, as the two groups have a fundamental mismatch of views. Hobbyist drone flyers see it as a hobby, using toys; while the aviation authorities have attempted to apply the same ‘zero risk’ attitude that they apply to the rest of aviation.

This mismatch of views has caused a breakdown in the debate. This breakdown has not been helped in the UK by imposition of rules that are unclear. For example, the rules surrounding flight restriction zones (FRZs) are, at first glance, fairly sensible. If you want to fly within 2nm of an aerodrome, you require permission from the air traffic control (ATC) of that site to do so. However the implementation of these rules is severely lacking. Different ATC units have decided upon different rules, with some issuing blanket bans. In addition to this, there is a completely new set of rules being developed at a European level which will soon supersede the ones developed by national aviation authorities!

The future

DJI have recently released a white paper on what they view the future of drone safety to be. This report aims to chart a way forwards for drone safety. As the market leading manufacturer of drones, DJI has a huge amount of influence in the direction that safety will take.

DJI have always been fast to add safety enhancements to their drones. From obstacle sensors to geofencing, DJI has brought many features to the mainstream of drone usage. In the report they try to look at the data surrounding drone safety, and make evidence led suggestions for moving forwards.

Research by the Civil Aviation Authority has reviewed the literature on the safety of drones below 2.4kg, which accounts for the vast majority of drones in use. They came up with the following key conclusions:

  • It is considered unlikely that a small drone would cause significant damage to a modern turbo-fan jet engine; even if it did, a multi-engine aircraft would still be likely to be able to land safely.
  • The windscreens of small helicopters and light aircraft are more susceptible to rupture if struck by a small drone, even when flying below normal cruising speed.
  • In any event, the best way to reduce safety risk is to prevent any two aircraft coming into proximity in the first place.
drone silhouetted against blue sky
Our Inspire 2, a medium sized drone

The identification problem

A story that you often see in the news since Gatwick is “Pilots report plane has near miss with a drone”. These stories are taken from reports created by the airprox board from pilot reports. Anyone involved in aviation can can make these reports, so if you are involved in a near miss with your drone we urge to to report it.

The reports created by the board try to distinguish between drones, balloons and other small unknown objects, but they acknowledge that identification of small objects by pilots is subjective. They take all reports at face value, and if a pilot has reported something that shows any drone characteristics then it will be filed as such.

This has created a vicious cycle where the reports are then picked up by news channels and reported as dangerous safety issues, even when the involvement of drones is seriously unlikely. This in turn raises awareness of the issue with pilots, who are then more likely to report an unknown object as a drone.

A image circulation on pilots forums and facebook groups.

DJI’s drone safety recommendations

DJI came up with 10 key recommendations to improve drone safety:

  1. Install DJI Airsense (ADS-B) receivers on all new drones above 250g
  2. Create a system that warns drone pilots when they fly their drones too far away
  3. DJI will establish a international standards group for ensuring drone reliability
  4. Aviation groups must develop standards for reporting drone incidents
  5. All drone manufacturers should install geofencing and remote identification
  6. Governments must require identification
  7. Governments must require a user friendly knowledge test for users
  8. Governments must clearly designate sensitive restricted areas.
  9. Local authorities must be allowed to respond to drone threats that are clear and serious
  10. Governments must increase enforcement of laws against un-safe drone operations

Our thoughts

On the whole these recommendations seem like a fairly well balanced suggestion to move forwards. Quite a few of them are already being implemented in the UK, such as the registration (for identification) and basic user testing. We are also lucky that restricted areas are well publicised and marked on a variety of different mediums. The police have also been given new powers, although a lot of forces are very unaware of this.

The technology suggestions that DJI makes are also sensible, however the ADS-B receiver suggestion may not be as useful as it first appears, as many light aircraft (the ones most at risk from drones) do not transmit the ADS-B signals.

Perhaps the most important suggestion is the increased enforcement. This is something that a lot of UK commercial operators have been crying out for. Awareness of the rules surrounding drone flights must be raised with UK police forces, and more action needs to be taken against those who are blatantly breaking the rules in an unsafe manner. To be quite honest, I don’t think people care that much about ‘technical’ breaches of the rules that do not damage safety. The main issue is that people are performing extremely unsafe flights, and posting the footage all over social media without any threat of censure. Without enforcement of the current rules, further restricting drone flights will only affect people who fly by those rules.

What are your thoughts on DJI’s proposed rules (or drone safety in general)? Let us know in the comments!

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