Let's learn from drone cockups: Confidential reports service opens up to unmanned fliers

Manned aviation spreads its wings over growing young industry

+Comment Fresh from the latest Gatwick drone controversy, aviation charity CHIRP is launching a confidential drone incident reporting service for commercial and recreational drone fliers.

The free-to-use service mirrors CHIRP's existing manned aviation functions, in which pilots and aviation professionals of all hues raise issues of concern anonymously. The most useful function of CHIRP is that operators (employers), trade unions and regulators also comment on selected incident reports.

"With the use of drones so rapidly on the rise in recent years and so many high-profile drone-related incidents disrupting flights at airports around the world it is hoped that, by establishing a forum for open and non-judgmental discussion and lesson-learning, this free, confidential and accessible reporting facility will help embed a Just Culture ethos in the drones community," said Chirp in a statement.

The registration of drone operators becomes mandatory (PDF) in the UK from tomorrow (30 November 2019).

Just Culture is one of the keystones of conventional aviation safety. In an organisation successfully practising the Just Culture ethos, people at all levels are encouraged to speak up about potential or actual problems and dangerous situations at work – and to do so in an environment where they don't fear punishment for embarrassing their superiors.

For example, in the latest (October) edition of CHIRP's air transport newsletter, a worried airline cabin crew member reported that a captain had wanted to let a passenger sit on the jump seat during a landing – contrary to aviation rules and company policy alike. In the report, the crew member said: "I have not reported this to the company as I feel I would be punished for reporting but it's been on my mind ever since it happened."

Like all good ideas, the Just Culture concept does have its practical limits (local cultural norms in countries with a strong tradition of deference to one's elders and superiors being the usual one) but the basic idea that every mistake can be used as a learning point for others is a strong one.

With the UK's drone industry still being very much in its infancy, and with manned aviation largely treating it as a collection of the "clueless, careless or criminal", integrating drone fliers into existing reporting and learning structures can only help ensure safer skies and greater mutual respect for all.

Ian Dugmore, CHIRP's chief exec, said in a statement: "We're hoping drone hobbyists and enthusiasts will make good use of CHIRP's drones reporting service as a first port of call for sharing information and reporting drone-related incidents, secure in the knowledge that their personal details will remain confidential."

Civil Aviation Authority-approved drone operators should still raise mandatory occurrence reports (MORs) with the CAA. Members of the public wanting to complain about errant drones should still contact the police on 101. ®

Comment: It's great but can we do more?

The thing about CHIRP, and indeed airprox reports, is that those systems are based in a professional working environment where lots of organisations and agencies are sharing an increasingly congested resource: the sky.

You're constantly interacting with other professionals, many of whom work for different organisations, and usually you're doing that in a setting where you don't actually know who they are. Think of the pilot talking to an air traffic controller, or a ground handler marshalling an arriving aircraft to its parking spot before the baggage crew unload it.

Commercial drone operations are quite different. The CAA has applied the same regulatory model to drone operators as it has for traditional manned aviation: approved company operations manual/s form the basis for granting a licence*. Does this model work effectively for the vast majority of drone operators, who are one-person bands? If you've just written the entire ops manual yourself, are you going to feel as if you should refer to it before going flying?

Indeed, if you've just cocked something up while flying your drone and your perception is nobody else nearby is going to notice, are you as highly incentivised to report that as would be, say, a Cessna 172 pilot flying through controlled airspace, or an air traffic controller with loads of people hanging on their every word over the airwaves?

The answer to those questions, as far as The Register can see, is actually yes, judging by the "unmanned aircraft systems" section in the Air Accidents Investigation Branch bulletins. That's encouraging, and, along with CHIRP's opening up to small unmanned aviation, it may help continue to break down barriers between commercial drone operators and traditional aviators.

* Technically it's a Permission for Commercial Operations, but if it looks like a licence to operate and smells like a licence...

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