The recent “frenzy” over a suspected collision between a drone and a British Airways Airbus A320 on approach to London Heathrow Airport has again highlighted the confusion and misinformation that typically surrounds accidents reportedly involving unmanned aircraft.
The A320 was undamaged by the 17 April incident and continued on to its next flight, and further investigation discovered that it was probably a “floating plastic bag” and not an unmanned air vehicle collision.
Bill English of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says these “ghost events” are widely and sometimes wildly reported by the media and can be politically charged as regulators around the world explore ways to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into their national airspace systems.
“As we just saw in England, there were pundits and people with agendas coming out and drawing conclusions, saying ‘this should happen and that should happen’,” English explains at the AUVSI Xponential conference in New Orleans, Louisiana on 2 May.
“There was that loss of who’s in charge because right from the get-go there really wasn’t an event. You had law enforcement making statements to the media, airlines making statements, unions making statements.
“If we had the real event where there was really a dent in the airplane or anything it becomes much more clear. You can plant the stake and say, ‘we’re in charge here’ and people can guess all they want.”
English says suspected collisions involving unmanned aircraft should be treated no differently than any other aviation accident, and the lesson from the British Airways experience is "don’t panic" and follow normal, long-established investigating procedures. Investigators must steer clear of the wider debate about flight rules for UAVs, he says.
“We pride ourselves on our independence. We don’t have an agenda,” he says. “I don’t care what the facts are, I just care that they’re facts.
"Hopefully, this frenzy of sightings and the furor will die down as people get used to it and the media gets bored.”
Anna Neel of public relations agency Cirlot Agency says misinformation “was rampant” immediately following the British Airways incident and agencies should have pre-written statements ready that acknowledge an event occurred and that is being investigated, and then wait until facts are known.
“[A drone collision is] going to happen; it’s about controlling the chaos as best you can,” she says.