It took a bit of a workaround to hide my ass before I was able to watch the BBC Two documentary Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones. The hourlong documentary is presented by former Royal Marine commando, sniper, and now self-proclaimed high-risk adviser Aldo Kane. The term documentary is a bit of a misnomer in this case, as the short film tries to instill a fear of drones among its viewers. Rather than looking at all the ways in which drones can benefit our society, it focuses almost exclusively on how drones can disrupt air traffic at airports, severely damage airplanes in a collision, how terrorists might use drones to attack innocent civilians, and how little we can do to protect ourselves from these unmanned aircraft. Not much time is spent on how drones have saved people’s lives during search-and-rescue missions, aided firefighters (Notre Dame), restored communication networks, helped assess damage after natural disasters and wildfires, and delivered life-saving medication and in the future possibly organs to people in need. Instead, the documentary, produced by Horizon, paints a very negative and one-sided story about drones and how they might impact our society.
Britain’s next air disaster? Drones aims to scare the viewer
Only at the beginning of the documentary does Aldo briefly mention how drones can be useful during search-and-rescue missions and used to make urgent deliveries of medication. He then immediately dives into trying to assess the risk that these unmanned aircraft might bring to society, how little can be done against them, and how worried we all should be. Fearmongering seems to be the right word to describe most if not all of this BBC Two documentary.
In his documentary, Aldo focuses on:
Drone disruption at airports
He examines how drones can disrupt air traffic, especially around airports. London’s Gatwick Airport story is brought up many times, even though we still have not seen any proof of drones actually being responsible for the disruption. Aldo warns:
“Already the skies above the UK are busier than they have ever been. That is an air disaster that is waiting to happen. It is not IF this happens. It’s WHEN this happens.”
Damage to an airplane after colliding with a drone
At an impact test facility in Glastonbury, Aldo, together with Dr. Ian Horsfall, tests what the damages might be to an airplane after colliding with a drone. First, they shoot a gelatin blob resembling a bird at part of a wing from an old business jet. Then, Aldo literally smashes a Phantom drone to pieces, takes most of the loose pieces, sticks them together with foam, fires the assorted mess at the already damaged (gelatin blob) wing, and assesses the damage that results. The test is far from scientific but that doesn’t stop Aldo from saying that “compared to the last one, that looked catastrophic,” and will “make me think twice about flying.” Horsfall adds to that by saying that the risk of drones hitting an airplane is a “real and serious threat to our transport.”
Next, we dive into airprox reports. Aldo points out how in 2013, zero drones were mentioned, and in 2018, there have been 125 reports of drones sighted by pilots, copilots, or cabin crew. These reports, when written up, rely only on what the pilot has seen or thinks he or she might have seen. That information is taken at face value. The board does not verify the information. If you read through these reports in detail (more on this in a future article), you will see how in many cases, it simply could not have been a drone that was spotted based on altitude and location. Also, keep in mind that it is very hard if not impossible to spot a small drone when flying hundreds of miles per hour. The numbers in these reports need to be reviewed very carefully to get to an actual number of possible, unconfirmed drone sightings. However, Aldo uses the information to further scare the viewer. To date, there have only been two confirmed drone collisions with aircraft, both helicopters, which proceeded to land safely.
Aldo explains to the viewer how geo-fencing works, and how it is ineffective for anybody who is set on bypassing it. Geo-fencing can indeed be hacked with software, completely avoided by using a drone from other manufacturers, or by assembling your own FPV racing drone. Geo-fencing is not a catch-all. It is unlikely to stop people with criminal intent. However, geo-fencing is one way to minimize the chances of uninformed people — the clueless, careless drone operators, as they are called by the FAA — to accidentally fly into restricted airspace.
Shooting down a drone
Aldo visits a place in England where he tries to safely shoot a drone out of the sky. Aldo was a sniper. He tries to shoot a Phantom drone with a rifle. He misses repeatedly at a distance of 300 meters (984 feet). Only when the drone is flown closer at 200 meters (656 feet) is Aldo able to hit it with a third shot. He points out that in his case, the drone was flying against a green background instead of a bright sky, so it would have been near impossible to see, let alone shoot. He concludes that shooting a drone out of the sky (one of the options at Gatwick) is near impossible to do, and would not be a safe course of action in many situations. I agree with him here, although Aldo’s underlying message is to show how little can be done against malicious drone operators.
FPV racing drone
Aldo is introduced to FPV racing drones. After witnessing how fast, agile, and accurate those drones can fly around obstacles, he concludes that these aircraft would make very good attack devices once weaponized, and being flown quickly and accurately from about one mile away. Aldo concludes:
“So in fact what you got is a weaponized drone being controlled from a mile away with pinpoint accuracy.”
Drones as flying explosives
Next up are actions taken with drones in Venezuela and the Middle East. In these situations, the drones were outfitted with explosive devices and were either blown up in mid-air or were used to drop grenades. Aldo concludes that the danger from weaponized drones is real, and that people can now build ultimate killing machines in a bedroom. Aldo:
“Whatever is used on the battlefield is only a few short step away from being used in the UK for the exact same purpose of wreaking terror and fear into the general population.”
Counter drone measures
Lastly, Aldo looks at how counter drone measures work. He explores jammers that obstruct the radio signal between the controller and the drone, and also the video feed and the GPS signal. According to Aldo’s research, jamming technology is only effective when the drone is controlled by radio. In case a drone is preprogrammed or flies autonomously, jamming the signal is ineffective. Aldo takes us to Exyn, a drone company in Philadelphia, to show how autonomous drones work, and how they would not be affected by jamming technology. Lastly, Aldo visits Raytheon in Dallas to examine their mobile laser technology, which is able to fry a drone in midair. It’s an expensive and complicated solution, but it works on any kind of drone.
As I pointed out earlier, Aldo draws a very negative picture of drones and their potential impact on our societies. For some reason (possibly sensationalism, views, and advertising revenues), he, Horizon, and the BBC have chosen to only look at how drones could pose a threat to people, and how little can be done to prevent that from happening. The documentary purposely creates a one-sided and threatening story to scare the viewer. Rather than only focussing on the negatives, they could just as easily have created a more positive and upbeat documentary that would showcase how drones have helped save people’s lives, assist firefighters and police to fight fires, find children, elderly people, and even dogs, warn swimmers when there are sharks nearby, and study wildlife. Many of which you can read here on DroneDJ.
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Photograph: Rob MacAndrew/BBC/Windfall Films