UK – 30% increase in drone complaints

UK – 30% increase in drone complaints

In the UK there were recent press headlines suggesting there has been upwards of a 30% increase in drone complaints to the police, this was prompted by Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests that were compiled into a blog by a Dr Alan McKenna.

As part of the blog, there was a negative and irrelevant commentary on drones, for example, citing a claim about a Russian hobbyist building a rig to specifically climb to heights not seen with off the shelf consumer drones.  Also a case was discussed where a drone was used to smuggle contraband yet there was no commentary to detail the fact there are many cases of contraband smuggling by prison staff due to low wages, a BBC report has suggested up to five staff in every prison are corrupt, meanwhile 1000s of prison staff were responsible for misconduct before consumer drones were a thing.  In a nutshell, drones have become a convenient smokescreen for the low wages of prison staff, contraband was in prisons well before drones existed.

In my view, if you present figures wrapped within negative commentary, regardless of what the figures really mean, you are influencing the interpretation of those figures.

We saw “calls made to UK police forces” become “Complaints of drone activity soar” as the newspapers tried to interpret the information being provided to them, yet many of the calls aren’t complaints about drones, the calls detail a wealth of scenarios which include the theft of drones, assault of drone owners, e-mails being received about drones and legal operators calling the police to report they’re using a drone for a job.  Some operators are now reluctant to even call the police to report a flight for the fear the call will be deliberately misinterpreted by some in the media.

To accurately report the number of complaints about drones and to provide an accurate percentage change of those calls, you first need to have the text (which will have personal information redacted) of each call and to remove those which aren’t complaints about the use of drones.  In truth, if you’re trying to understand if drones are a genuine criminal nuisance, then it should be convictions you tally up as most of the calls when investigated by the police turn out not to be a criminal matter.

It was reported that “the largest single category of complaints related to drones flying over residential and public property” yet most police forces don’t even hold categories this granular and it would need the incident text reading to make a precise interpretation.  At a glance of the incident text seen in West Yorkshire, it is likely true this kind of complaint was the largest throughout the country, that said, it is likely that most people are only complaining as they are seeing negative press about drones, so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If the press tells you that you should fear drones, then that’s the reaction you will have, you will then call the police, that will be reported by the media as being a potential crime as that generates fear which gets clicks and sells newspapers, it’s a cycle of ignorance.  There is also the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) factor where people will complain about anything they’re ignorant of or personally dislike, so you will have calls where a drone has been seen 100s of metres away, just like some neighbours will complain about children playing football, about their neighbour having a bird feeder and so on, drones aren’t immune to vexatious complaints.

I’ve seen this behaviour with technology in the past, I worked for the BT mobile network which became o2, at the height of negative press publicity on mobile phones, I dealt with calls almost daily where faux health concerns were used to justify an upgrade to a different model of phone or to cancel a contract.  At that time we were told mobiles would fry our brains or inevitably cause cancer, I remember being told by one customer that his mobile phone would instantly cause him to lose consciousness because of the rays it was emitting, it was an effort to get out of his contract, I asked him to demonstrate this behaviour in a BT store, needless to say, he never did.  Imagine if we’d have limited the adoption of computers or mobile phones based off media hysteria, we wouldn’t have the many benefits they bring to our lives, in fact, you probably would not be reading this sentence now!

This negative media reporting, prompted me to make an FOI request to my local force, not only for figures but the detail so the numbers could be interpreted and to truly get a feel for if drones were a local issue.

I was particularly disappointed to see my local newspaper jump on the anti-drone bandwagon as the city I live in which is Bradford was one of the cities picked by Nesta for the Flying High Challenge, so rather than celebrating a huge achievement by the city and it’s local drone community we had an inaccurate and clickbait article.  The story claims the drone calls were 999 (emergency), which I doubt is true of all the calls, there’s certainly non-emergency calls and few that would, in reality, warrant an emergency police response.  The article used a two year total of 300 to make the figure sound scarier, yet there were in the region of 170 calls in 2017 to West Yorkshire Police which in truth is still a small number, it’s also not a count of complaints.  The categories most likely to be complaints are “Concern for safety” plus “Nuisance” and “Suspicious circumstances” which totalled 105, I’m sure there would have been some genuine concerns in other categories too, but these are the main ones, most of which are deeming activity to be suspicious rather than reporting a nuisance.

I asked West Yorkshire Police to narrow the calls down to the Bradford District which represents over 534,000 people and is the fifth largest metropolitan district (in terms of population) in England, there were only 24 calls of which going by the categories would make for 21 potential complaints, the police didn’t index these to the incident text otherwise this could have been as little as 15.

When you look at the call volumes versus the population we’re dealing with, drones in truth aren’t causing alarm or harm, it would be interesting to get the figures for the overall call numbers made to each force to put a percentage on drone calls versus the real crimes our police officers are having to deal with.  It would also be interesting to see call volume trends if efforts weren’t being made to cause alarm about drones in the media.

Calls which were counted by the media as complaints in West Yorkshire included what were likely fireworks mistaken for drones.

Responsible operators reporting their flights:

Theft of drones:

Identity fraud where goods including drones were bought:

When you look at the calls to see if the police found it necessary to make arrests, regardless of whether the call was concerning suspicious behaviour or other activity, the police on investigating almost always found no need for charges.

Ian Hudson

I am an advocate for the use of UAV/UAS/Drone technology and have been building and using drones since 2013. I was involved in the bid for Bradford to become one of the UK's 5 drone testing cities for the Nesta Flying High Challenge and was part of the task force. I have provided commentary for the media, with interviews on the BBC and in The Register.