Q&A: DJI director discusses “clearly flawed” near-miss reports and how airports can use drones for good


In conversation with the Drone Disruption Summit, Adam Lisberg, DJI’s corporate communications director for North America, tells of how drones and airports can, do, and will work seamlessly together.

He details how airports and in turn, the consumer, can reap the rewards of the quicker and more efficient service drone technology can offer if the industry can get past the media reports of taking so-called drone sightings at face value.

Here is what was said:

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DDS: What are the media missing in the consistent sensationalism of drone near misses at airports?

AL: The world’s media love to dig into issues and discover the truth behind hype, so it’s surprising that journalists around the world take reports of drone sightings at face value. While some sightings do raise real concerns, others are clearly flawed. Airplane pilots can’t reliably identify something the size of a dinner plate at 10,000 feet and 200 mph, but if they describe something as a drone instead of a bird, the world’s media present it as a confirmed deadly threat. Perhaps this is because drone technology is relatively novel, and reporters don’t have much independent experience in questioning those initial reports. That’s why we simply want journalists to apply the same critical thinking to drone sightings that they use for covering everything else.

DDS: We have also seen drones at airports be beneficial, how have you seen the industry progress to adopt this technology?

AL: Drones are enormously beneficial for inspection, surveying and data capture in complex industries like construction, transportation and logistics – and airports combine all of those undertakings every day. Contractors use drones on airport construction projects, airlines use drones to inspect their fleets, and airports use drones to survey their properties. The obvious safety concerns have led to airports being slower than other operations to adopt drone workflows, but as procedures are developed to address those issues, airports are catching up quickly.

DDS: Can you see drones being used by airports across the world to actually help increase safety and mitigate risk themselves?

AL: We already are. Airports use drones to inspect runways, both for debris and for maintenance purposes, since drones can produce a high-quality 3D scan of a property much more quickly and reliably than ground-based methods. Airports have used drones to inspect structures, build computer models for future planning, and augment perimeter security. Just like with other industries, airports are realizing that flying robots can automate data collection and let them focus on making good decisions with the data.

DDS: What are the real risks that drones pose to airports?

AL: The risk of a drone coming too close to an airplane or helicopter is remote but real, which is why DJI has put substantial time, effort and resources into developing safety systems like geofencing. The challenge for airports is to develop response plans that can address drone sightings in a reasonable way, so they can be evaluated and acted on routinely, just like a wildlife incursion or other unplanned but routine issue.

DDS: What needs to happen to maintain the uptake of drone integration into airports?

AL: Beyond the existing efforts to create regulatory and technological protections, airports need to develop standard procedures for responding to reports of drone incursions. That will help reverse the present dynamic in which any hint of a drone anywhere near an airport can lead to a full shutdown and public panic. A confirmed sighting of a drone at the end of a runway is far different than a second-hand report of someone flying in a nearby park. As airports, pilots, police and the public get accustomed to seeing drones in everyday use in other contexts, we believe that will help remove some of the fear about drones and allow for even-handed evaluation of reports of drones near airports.

DDS: How do you think those working within the aviation industry can collaborate to mitigate the risk of drones to aviation?

AL: There is plenty of work for everyone. Regulators and governments need to accelerate the process of requiring remote identification, and must publicly enforce existing laws when drone pilots are proven to have violated safety rules. Airlines and pilots need to be more skeptical of drone sightings at high altitudes or with split-second timing, since it is extremely difficult to distinguish between a drone and a bird, balloon or other item. All drone manufacturers, not just DJI, should install geofencing and Remote ID in their products. And airports need to develop procedures to respond appropriately to drone sightings, many of which should never necessitate a full shutdown.

With the technology that you are integrating into your drones, such as obstacle sensing, return-to-home, geofencing, remote identification and many more, the accidental misuse of drones sounds much less likely to happen. What measures are you taking to make sure that these systems are difficult to override, so that intentional misuse of drones doesn’t occur?

No system is foolproof, and while we harden our systems with encryption and other protection measures, neither DJI nor any other company would ever claim that it can forever keep a determined adversary at bay. DJI believes the overwhelming majority of drone pilots want to fly safely and responsibly, which is why we focus on our efforts on technology and education to help pilots make good flight decisions. If someone wants to deliberately hack a system to try something malicious with a drone, law enforcement and national security agencies are the ones best-equipped to detect and mitigate those threats.

DDS: How does the Aeroscope system, which is already installed at many airports, mitigate the risk of drones to the airport environment?

AL: AeroScope detects all DJI drones flying within radio range, which can be as far as 25 km, and provides accurate telemetry (location, altitude, speed, direction, etc.) as well as the drone’s serial number and the drone pilot’s location. Airports can use this to determine whether a drone poses a potential hazard or regulatory violation, as well as whether to send a police officer to the pilot’s location to determine his/her intent. Our system works only on DJI drones, but independent estimates say about 74% of the world’s drones are made by DJI.

DDS: What has been the uptake of Remote ID and what are the next steps in making it mandatory in drones?

AL: DJI believes all drone companies should install Remote ID systems in their drones, as well as geofencing systems. National aviation regulators are beginning to develop Remote ID requirements, but these efforts will take years before they take effect. We believe manufacturers should not wait to begin installing them.

DDS: How do you envisage the technology that you are implementing into your drones, altering the operational procedures at airports?

AL: We built our AeroScope system to be easily integrated into airport operations, and we are interested to learn how airports process the information it generates. AeroScope can sound an alarm whenever it detects a DJI drone in a restricted area, allowing airport operators to decide whether to respond with police, temporarily divert air traffic, or take other actions. We have also adjusted the shape of our geofencing zones to better reflect the ICAO standards for safe areas near airports and runways, which we believe will make drone pilots less likely to fly in inappropriate areas in the first place.

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Alex Douglas

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