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Here comes the drone backlash

Mike Elgan | Aug. 25, 2015
Soon it will be politically incorrect to express enthusiasm for drones or fly them in public. Too bad. Drones are cool.

The public is very bad at weighing the relative risks and benefits of anything. Media reports like to throw out big numbers.

The best example: Drones have been reported buzzing, harassing and threatening airplanes recently. The occurrence is so common that 12 incidents were reported in a single day recently and a total of 700 reported incidents so far this year.

Wow! That sounds horrible. Of course, any number of drones flying near any number of planes is too many. There's no question about that.

But how much actual risk is buried in those 700 reports?

For starters, some unknown number of them involve a case of mistaken identity. One widely reported incident in the news involved a United Airlines pilot who said a drone struck his airplane. Less widely reported was that a subsequent investigation found that it was actually a bird strike.

In fact, almost none of these reports involve actual strikes. A pilot sees or thinks he or she sees a drone "over there" somewhere. It has to be reported. And, in fact, anything inside the airport fence or in airspace used for takeoff and landing is unacceptable and must be reported.

But to put the number 700 in perspective, let's compare it to the 13,759 reported cases of wildlife strikes, mostly birds, in 2014.

Unlike the drone reports, these aren't sightings of animals "over there." They're reports of actual contact (usually violent, fatal to the animal and potentially life-threatening to passengers) between animals and airplanes.

Some experienced pilots are starting to push back against the hysteria over drones, pointing out that, compared with bird strikes, drones are nothing to be alarmed about.

In fact, it's likely that drones could be used by airports to chase away birds and other animals and prevent dangerous contact with aircraft.

6. Fear of loss of control

By their very nature, drones represent a loss of control by non-participants. Drones can fly fast, fall out of the sky and come at you with their propellers spinning. The idea of drones flying around taps into the innate fear of a loss of control of one's environment that some people have.

7. Invasion of privacy

Drones usually have cameras. They can look over fences, fly over private spaces and record what's going on. They're seen as a potential invasion of privacy.

While most of these reasons for fear are overblown, most of them have validity at some level. They're reasons for fear. But ultimately, fear and its ugly cousin -- a panicky mob attitude that would make the use of drones politically ostracizing -- is not the answer.


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