Project Description

Drone Pilot Assaulted by Journalist

It is with great sadness that we have to report the violent assault of a DSR drone pilot. 

The pilot was assaulted by a member of the public who had been misled by increasingly negative narrative about the use of drones, propagated by a large proportion of the UK’s media outlets.  Irresponsible click-bait headlines and slanted stories designed to cause outrage and generate fear of UAVs amongst the public meant that a professional, CAA approved drone operator and Drone Safe Register member was flying safely and legally as instructed by his client when the assault happened following threats to shoot the drone out of the sky by a member of the public.

picture credit to the Guardian as tweeted

Picture credit as Tweeted by the Guardian newspaper

And now we have your attention and outrage of course…  No, to our knowledge a drone pilot hasn’t been assaulted by a journalist or a member of the public during the course of their duties.  At least, not yet!  However, there is a point to our flagrant use of fake news.

In today’s competitive media environment, the need for the media companies to get you to click through to a story from an attention-grabbing headline is paramount.  Livelihoods depend upon it, right?  However, it is now only a matter of time until this potentially irresponsible press generated ‘fear of the drone’ does have real life consequences and these could be very serious indeed.

Amongst the drone community, many pilots are now talking about the abuse that they are suffering, since the ‘Gatwick Incident’.  This can range from being obstructed in carrying out safe and legal flights to being verbally insulted and even physically threatened. Some approached with guns drawn! Others have also reported a drop in work as many clients are left concerned and confused by the media story and government rhetoric. This trend of open hostility towards drone operators is taking the form of anger being expressed by members of the public who in reality, have nothing to fear from drones but the headlines themselves.

Why is this happening?

The media seem to have taken great joy in writing about drones as the spying demon in the sky – taking pictures of us in the shower, casing our homes for nefarious purposes and shutting down airports on a whim. There has been very little coverage of the financial benefits that drones have to offer the UK economy – estimated by PWC to be in excess of £40bn by 2020. – Link here

This is not a new phenomenon.  Back in August 2016, this headline was published by the Independent and journalist Adam Lusher.

London woman dies in possibly the first drone-related accidental death

“The incident may be the first fatality linked to the non-military use of drones.”

It pictured the cliché image of an entry level DJI Phantom drone, as part of the constant media re-enforcement of non-professional or commercial use equipment and technology.

Once you had recovered from the shock and righteous indignation, and read on, you would have discovered that the story actually related to the tragic death of a woman from a police car chase following only a report of a drone being flown near Wandsworth Prison.  A tenuous link.  It’s a time pressed world we live in and if you hadn’t taken the time to read the rest of the article, there is clearly something very much to be feared from this entry level UAV.

So, the death in fact, was due to a “car” being driven dangerously by the driver, while escaping a police pursuit. The headline should clearly have been “London woman dies in yet another car accident while evading a police pursuit” (should police pursuits be banned?) …. It was at night, the police just had a report of a drone, but the point of the headline is to leave the reader firmly of the view that the drone was the cause for the fatality and of course… Drones are bad!

In fact, Adam himself goes on to write…

‘It is not yet known, however, why the drone was being flown, and its presence near the prison may have been coincidental.  No arrests have been made following the incident, which is now being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC)’ … no investigation by the AAIB then?

Here is the link to the Independent’s story…..

Let’s Talk about the Gatwick Incident

Nothing sells more papers than concerns over public safety.  Or indeed about people being harmed during the festive season.  So, it was inevitable that the press took the anti-drone stance when Gatwick airport was closed leaving thousands of people stranded in misery over Christmas – family occasions were missed, hearts were broken and that was a very real sadness that we can all sympathise with. For clarity’s sake, I’m not gainsaying that.

However, it is still very curious to me that despite the world’s media camping out in a square mile over three days, that no credible photographic or video evidence has ever been made public either at the time or in the following months.  Thousands of airport travellers, visitors and staff all armed with mobile phone cameras and ready to cash in on selling their videos, offered no evidence either. I know Gatwick well and living only a few miles away, I know the surrounding area well and there is very little opportunity to hide a drone flight from the preying eyes of the world, even at night! But I digress…

At the time, I was personally dispatched as the representative of Drone Safe Register to talk to media outlets at the airport and in a TV studio, to make drone tech and drone law facts available and to offer a balanced opinion from a commercial drone professional carrying with him the weight of the UK’s largest network of safe and legal UAV pilots.

Not one of the main papers or broadcasters was even slightly interested and the one interview that I did complete with Sky News was never aired.  All the stories centred on the human cost of the travel disruption and public outrage that ensued, and once again all drone pilots were tarred with the same brush as should have been applied to the idiot(s) working outside the law with a deliberate agenda to cause as much disruption as possible.  The kneejerk calls for even weightier legislation to be applied to an industry that is already heavily regulated would NOT have stopped Gatwick, a point freely agreed by Chris Grayling and Government, but nonetheless the calls went out.

So, the industry continues to live with the consequences.

The headline ink hadn’t even dried before wrongful arrests were made.  A poor couple were dragged through the court of public opinion because of an interest in radio-controlled flying and a neighbour with a grudge.  Local professional and commercial drone pilots found the police on their doorstep (probably as they were easily found due to their CAA registration) as the authorities attempted to respond to the media induced pressure for answers.

In my career, I’ve completed a number of drone operations within a mile or two of Gatwick airport with full NATS and airport permissions and with no problems at all. Every stakeholder couldn’t have been more helpful and obliging.  Now I’ve had two incidents of verbal assault and it’s hard to believe that this is a coincidence.  It would seem that I’m not alone, with many commercial drone pilots now reporting public hostility since those fateful December days.

Adam Cook, a CAA approved and qualified drone pilot talked to us about a recent incident with a local farmer he was legally flying near.

‘He came bouncing to the fence of the field I was in, told me he was going to knock me out and smash up my drone, which was in the air at the time. Screamed at me that I was filming his compound, I wasn’t.  …He continues to threaten to beat me up as I’m trying to get the drone on the ground. At this point farmer’s wife comes over and demands to see my licence and again accuses me of filming their property.” ….. Adam’s full account can be read here.

Graham Degg a commercial and certified drone pilot also talked to us about a training course he was conducting on private land on behalf of the Drone Safe Register.

The hotel we were using had a strict drone policy. Excellent. They wanted evidence of pilot competence and PfCO… Fantastic. They required £5m insurance… Fine and understandable given the age and extent of the property. I’m afraid I fell into the trap of thinking that given all this thought put into drones, there would be an understanding in place with close neighbours too. Wrong! We found out just how bad the relationship was when we heard that the farmer next door was VERY angry about the drones potentially ‘scaring his horses’ which they weren’t, and was prepared to shoot them down. All talk right? We adjusted the flight paths to avoid any overflight of the neighbour. But during the next flight we could hear voices from behind the hedge. A couple of our trainees popped down to see if they could see what was going on. The next message that came through the radio was “he’s got a cocked gun”! … It turns out he and his horses don’t like the fireworks that regularly go off at the hotel’s wedding parties. Probably fair enough but leave out drones out of the dispute.”

In both the above accounts, would the aggrieved parties have resorted to aggression and threats of violence prior to Gatwick? Or would they have approached the drone pilots and expressed their concerns in a more appropriate way?

Richard Lambert of Quadrone – Aerial Imaging Solutions talked to us about his recent incident.

“I just came in to land and change the battery, about 15 mins into this flight. I then noticed two people storming down the driveway towards me. Now I am in full hi-viz, sign written on the rear with bold “Do Not Disturb”. I have placed my caution signage near the entrance way also!

Sadly, they completely ignored all safety equipment and began shouting to me. I have my UAS in flight and for once I am alone, due to my observer bailing out sick at last minute. It began quite confrontational. “Can you stop doing that!” one of them barks. “No” I replied! “I am working for the owner of the project, getting progress shots!” She then responds “Well it’s an invasion of privacy, and I will shoot it down, if you keep flying it!”…. “Once the UAS was safe I then asked her to repeat what she has just said “I said, I will shoot it down if you keep flying, I have a gun and I did get it out to shoot you down” she says. I then had to try to defuse the situation as I just wanted to complete what I was legally being paid to do. “You know you’re breaking the law, and you should be locked up!” she pipes up, “you lot with all the Gatwick stuff want to go careful! I have had enough of that thing buzzing about and how would you know it was me that shot it down anyway?”

Here at DSR, we’re sad to say that we are seeing many similar stories being discussed in our closed forums and in other social media groups and it has certainly given us and our pilots a great deal of cause for concern.  Everyone should have the right to go about their lawful business without fear of verbal abuse and persecution. Many operators are loan workers and there is now a real concern things will boil over.

So the Law has Changed… 13th March 2019

This week has seen the introduction of further legislation to restrict the use of drones around airports and aerodromes – exactly the kneejerk reaction that the commercial drone community was lobbying government not to make. The laws were already there and working well for all law abiding operators and hobbyists.

Yes, commercial pilots can still operate in these areas if we are willing to fight our way through more red tape and cost to get our work done.  Not an insurmountable obstacle you might say but will it stop anyone determined to act outside the law and fly a drone to cause disruption or danger to the public?  Are joy-riders without a license and insurance deterred by the thought of fines and imprisonment?  Does the threat of prosecution for knife crime put off anyone determined to wound or kill? Would banning mopeds stop their use in muggings in London? No, any amount of law doesn’t make a difference if you don’t care about acting legally in the first place.

So back to the contentious headline of ‘Drone Pilot Assaulted by Journalist’

Clickbait? Definitely… True? No… Irresponsible? Possibly… Outraged? Hopefully…

But with the very real threat of violence facing drone pilots trying to earn a living and who are naturally risk adverse and operate within the law, it is ironic that before any newspaper headline can claim to state the “first drone related death of a member of the publicit is in fact much more likely that the headline will be “first drone pilot assaulted by a member of the public”.

Author: Drone Safe Register – Drone Safe Register