There is a programme on the Discovery Channel called MythBusters whose presenters and producers, I have long thought, must be among the happiest people on Earth. Their raison d’être is taking things people reckon are true and examining whether they are.
Can a handgun held incorrectly – MythBusters is an American production – really blow off a man’s thumb? Let’s construct man‑hands out of chicken parts and wire and see … Boom! Yes, it can! Can gaffer tape be used to mend a boat leak? Well, not only can it fix a leak, my friends, but you can construct an entire boat out of the stuff and put it successfully to sea. When testing whether a stick of dynamite tossed in a cement mixer is the best way to get rid of the layer of building-glue therein, why not set off 390kg (850lb) of military-grade explosives inside a 15-metre-thick layer of concrete, too? Again, in slow motion, for the cheap seats!
For a flagship science documentary series, Horizon’s latest instalment – Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones (BBC Two) – hath drunk surprisingly deeply from the MythBusters well. The presenter, Aldo Kane (a former Royal Marines commando and sniper, now an all-round action man and high-risk adviser to the kinds of people and companies who need to be advised on high-risk things – and sporter of a beard so vigorous it should have had separate billing), has all kinds of fun. He gets to see gelatine packages (mimicking birds) fired into aeroplane wings; smash up a drone – or “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV), if you are so minded – and fire its parts at another one; shoot a rifle all over the Lake District; and get to grips with something called Leonardo’s Falcon Shield, a name that shall be writ on a lake of testosterone and fire by a pen made of testicles.
This is all to investigate how much danger this new technology poses, in the wake of Gatwick’s three-day drone incident, during which 140,000 passengers on 1,000 diverted or cancelled flights were royally spragged after reports of the unmanned little buggers being seen near runways. What can we do about the people who would rather use these ever faster, ever cheaper devices not for delivering urgent medical supplies, going into disaster areas too unsafe for people to enter, dropping off new hardbacks and kitchen appliances at people’s homes or otherwise adding to the sum of human happiness and progress, but for frustrating the pursuit of the peace and safety in which we had once hoped to live?
Kane does his due diligence, duly and diligently. Drone pilots show him how far, fast and accurately a UAV can be sent anywhere, while experts testify that it can be done by operators hidden 1,000 miles away. The sharp metal drone parts he smashes up and fires off do far more damage to a plane than bird mush does – and there were 125 near-misses in 2018. Drone manufacturers’ pledges to install new collision warnings won’t – believe it or not – stop the drone operators for whom colliding with planes is the whole point. Ditto planned legislation for users of drones weighing more than 250g to be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority.
Meanwhile, we watch footage from August 2018 of an attempted assassination by drone of Nicolás Maduro, the embattled Venezuelan president, which shows how easily geofencing – which is used to keep drones operating within a certain perimeter – can be hacked, and why shooting tiny things out of busy skies with bullets that can still kill people on their way down is sub-optimal.
For all the boys-with-toys overlay, the programme’s underlying message is sober and devoid of histrionics. The problem is that it all adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Yes, there is this threat and that threat, and these possibilities, and these loopholes in current defences against them. But despite Kane’s assertions that various things are “terrifying”, there is too much distance between the evidence and the threat to induce much emotion.
Whether this is the fault of the show or the fact that most of us are maxed-out, terror-wise, by clearer and more present dangers to factor in a new one is hard to say. Personally, I am at a point where worrying about drone strikes feels like a luxury my mental health can’t afford. But it is on my list now. As soon as a space opens up, I will start. Thank you, Aldo; thank you, Horizon – I think.