Drone manufacturing giant DJI has objected to the portrayal of drones by the BBC. Drone maker DJI is so incensed about the recent BBC Horizon programme ‘Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones’ that it published an open letter that claims the show is “disturbing” and “could itself cost lives”.
DJI was displeased, with the documentary, a Horizon special, which aired on 1 July 2019, claiming ‘The Gatwick Drone Attack’ falls very short of informing and educating viewers in an impartial and accurate manner”.
DJI’s Director of Marketing and Corporate Communication Dr. Barbara Stelzner said: “The documentary almost exclusively focused on threats and risks posed by drones, and the general tone of the documentary was overwhelmingly negative, with the presenter frequently using the words ‘catastrophic’ and ‘terrifying’.”
While DJI admits that it wasn’t explicitly named in the documentary, it mentioned the documentary showing DJI-branded drones in a negative light. DJI stated, “quite literally the BBC’s sensational false reporting on drone risks could itself cost lives.” That is an unusually strong-worded statement from a consumer tech company and reflects how much recent media attention has impacted consumer drones.
The open letter written by DJI to the BBC expresses its ‘deep disappointment’ at what it describes as the broadcaster’s negative portrayal of drone tech.
This open-letter precedes DJI’s official response via the BBC’s complaint process on the issues of impartiality and accuracy. It was published on both public DJI channels and was shared with media organisations.
Excerpts from the letter:
“The BBC is a public service broadcaster whose remit is to ‘inform, educate, and entertain. We strongly believe that both these programmes fall very short of informing and educating viewers in an impartial and accurate manner. It is the BBC’s duty to paint a more nuanced picture of the events at Gatwick, given that there is still no firm conclusion due to the lack of physical evidence or any photographic material to prove that a drone was even the actual cause of the disruptions, and therefore no information upon which to analyse the actual risk or threat to aviation.
‘Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones’
Looking at ‘Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones’ specifically, the narrative of the documentary was already set in choosing an ex-marine to host the programme. Throughout the programme this military background was referred to time and time again to establish some kind of justification for his expertise to talk knowledgeably on the matter of drone technology. The documentary almost exclusively focused on threats and risks posed by drones, and the general tone of the documentary was overwhelmingly negative, with the presenter frequently using the words ‘catastrophic’ and ‘terrifying’. Only about one minute of an hour-long programme was given to the multitude of benefits that drone technology has to offer society.
The Impact Assessment testing shown on the programme can only be described as disturbing. The Horizon programme relied upon an artificial amalgam of a drone battery, and randomly placed rigid carbon-fibre rods, glued together. There is no conceivable way that this artificial “Frankendrone” provides any useful information about collision risk. By modifying the physical construction of the “drone,” the test becomes immediately scientifically invalid.
A section of the documentary was dedicated to Airprox Board reports, referring to 125 near-collisions between aircraft and drones that were reported in 2018, and specifically going into detail about one reported incident in July 2016 where a drone allegedly came within 20m from an A320 above the Shard building in London (at 4,900 feet altitude and 180 knots speed (207 mph)). The evidence behind these reports is taken as fact. However, the results of a Freedom of Information request to the Airprox Board from last month states:
“In all cases, UK Airprox Board (UKAB) has no confirmation that a drone has flown close to an aircraft other than the report made by the pilot(s). Similarly, other than from the report of the pilot(s), UKAB has no confirmation that a drone was involved.”
The Horizon programme ignored many of DJI’s safety features like Geofencing, Remote ID solution (AeroScope), ADS-B even though all the above information was provided to the programme’s researcher and we discussed with the production direct input from DJI,. DJI drones for enterprise use (M200 series and Mavic 2 Enterprise) already feature DJI AirSense, a built-in ADS-B receiver, enhancing airspace safety by automatically providing the operator with real-time information about the position, altitude and velocity of nearby manned aircraft equipped with ADS-B transmitters.
We find it, quite frankly, unfair and incredibly biased that a documentary looking at drones does not include a response from DJI, any drone manufacturer or any drone association such as the Drone Manufacturers’ Alliance Europe or ARPAS.
Having these reports published in trusted media creates a scenario of misinformation potentially more dangerous than fake news about the drone industry. For regulators, elected officials and drone companies trying to make drones safer, inaccurate news stories aren’t just misleading. They harm the process of improving safety, because they focus attention on outrageous events that didn’t happen. They also lead to stricter regulation, which curtails drone operations, and results in fewer lives saved using drone technology. Quite literally the BBC’s sensational false reporting on drone risks could itself cost lives.
We would welcome the opportunity to work with the BBC on a ‘Drones For Good’ documentary which would seek to go some way in addressing the balance in a currently extremely one-sided, negative media landscape. We also request that next time a BBC unit is working on a drone-related programme, our voice and those of our industry peers be included at length and in detail, so that the programme can fulfil the BBC’s mission to be an impartial, independent, accurate and reliable source of information.
Dr. Barbara Stelzner Director, Marketing and Corporate Communication”
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