Jul 23, 2017

UK test flies drones into damaging collisions with aircraft

Given some of the apologist posturing about how drones are not a risk to airliner safety, this study provides factual insights into the damage they could do on the approaches to airports

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Oh wizard! … a small remotely piloted aircraft has strayed into our path

UK researchers have found that even a very small hobbyist drone could pose a serious risk to some helicopters and light aircraft, and that heavier but increasingly widely used drones could break an airliner’s windscreen in a collision at altitudes and speeds typical of a jet making an approach to a landing.

Although some of the findings aren’t surprising, this is the believed to be the first time speculation about the dangers to flight posed by drones flown into the path of aircraft has been provided with evidence based support.

Using a 10 metre long compressed air gun, and real drones and drone parts, and various recreations of helicopter components and airliner cockpits, the test were done in a laboratory at the aviation research and testing facility at Farnborough, England.

The results showed that even the smallest and cheapest drone, coming in at a mere 400 grams, could cause critical failure (which is stiff upper lip for ‘blow apart) a helicopter windscreen at low speed (such as hovering).  This was because that type of drone, with exposed metal micro motors, was considerably more potentially damaging to some choppers than a 1.2 kilogram quadrocopter with its engine components covered by thick, strong plastic.

Critical damage could be done to an airliner windscreen at the speeds and heights that would be realistic for a collision near an airport between a jet airliner and a comparatively heavy 4 kg drone, with typical mass and characteristics for a commercial or serious hobbyist drone.

The study was commissioned by BALPA, the British commercial pilot’s association, the Military Aviation Authority and the UK Department for Transport.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that in helicopter and airliner collisions drones can cause significantly more damage than a bird strike of equivalent mass at the same impact speed. This was because of the unyielding nature of the metallic and hard plastic or composite materials in drones compared to flesh and feathers.

The study was unable to replicate some key factors in a drone collision with an airliner such as the effects of cabin pressurisation.

One of its recommendations is the drone makers be required to make their devices fall apart more readily in a collision, and use soft plastic coatings to minimise the damage done by solid metal components.

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8 thoughts on “UK test flies drones into damaging collisions with aircraft

  1. Jacob HSR

    18 month old’s eye sliced by a drone propeller:


    Very sad. Drones that do not have a propeller guard should be banned. They should also be banned from having sharp edges.

  2. Dan Dair

    ALL drones should have an owners ID chip embedded in the structure
    & should be made with high radar-reflective coatings as standard
    I believe ALL drones should be registered to the owner & the owner MUST have passed a operators test (which might well be nothing more than an online test about airspace rules & user requirements)
    Just because these things are ‘hobby’ equipment, doesn’t mean they should be uncontrolled or used irresponsibly & without consequence.?

    When I’m in control of the universe, I’d be happy to exempt genuine ‘toys’ with a short-range radio range & very short battery duration from any registration process.

    1. Zarathrusta

      Yes, with a strong grounding instinct when they lose radio control. The prospect of them being run over by cars would deter people from flying them over roads.

    2. Tango

      I agree 1000%

      This is pure insanity fueled by toys.

  3. Zarathrusta

    Of course we have regulations about this, the problem is the level of enforcement.

  4. Tango

    As Dan D noted, make it mandatory ON the drone, not deter by regs AFTER the fact.

    More critical though is engine strike studies.

    Not that a shattered windshield is any joke, its not.

    But loosing an engine to a drone strike and if you have lost one already?

  5. Dan Dair

    IMO the point of having a registration system which involves an online competency test,
    is that in the event of any incident, the drone operator can’t say
    “oh, it’s just a toy, I didn’t think anything bad could happen”
    because the competency test would include these scenarios & they’d be agreeing to be bound by the operating rules & procedures when they accepted registration.

    So if there IS an incident, we will have a culprit who has already agreed to the codes & practices & then broken them.!
    An slam-dunk for the judicial system AND a high-profile example for the rest of the drone users.
    Q. Why have you ended-up living in this cardboard box.?
    A. After I was convicted of causing the aircraft to crash, the courts seized all my assets & sold my wife, children & dog into servitude.!
    As you can imagine, I now regret the incident quite a bit.?

  6. gumshoe

    “Using a 10 metre long compressed air gun…”
    As with the birdstrike ‘frozen chicken’ test, this experiment does not have the reality of an airflow over the structure the projectile is fired at. Does that not affect the results, and is it that factored in?

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