Research/studies Air Transportation

For airplanes, drone collisions a greater hazard than bird strikes: FAA study

test aircraft model
Collision Test Aircraft Model
Photo: Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence

Washington — A high-speed collision with a drone would leave an airliner with more structural damage than if a bird of similar weight struck the plane, according to a recent study from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence.

ASSURE researchers used computer simulations to analyze the potential impacts of 2.7- and 4-pound quadcopters and 4- and 8-pound fixed-wing drones on a single-aisle commercial airliner and a business airliner. Because drones are constructed of heavy plastic or metal and often contain batteries and cameras, the researchers found that a collision with a drone could cause significantly more damage to the planes than an impact with the soft tissue of a bird.

Simulation results showed the jet’s horizontal stabilizers absorbed the greatest damage from a drone, while the windshield sustained the least. The researchers also monitored impact with the wing’s leading edge and the vertical stabilizers. Impact severity levels ranged from no damage to primary structure failure and penetration of the drone into the airframe.

“While the effects of bird impacts on airplanes are well-documented, little is known about the effects of more rigid and higher mass [drones] on aircraft structures and propulsion systems,” ASSURE Director Marty Rogers said in a Nov. 28 press release. “The results of this work are critical to the safety of commercial air travel here in the United States and around the world.”

FAA regulates commercial drone use under 14 CFR Part 107, enacted in August 2016. Provisions include flying drones less than 400 feet above ground level. Although the agency calls the use of drones around airplanes, helicopters and airports “dangerous and illegal,” FAA states that it receives more than 100 reports of such unauthorized drone use per month.

Capt. Tim Canoll, president of the Washington-based Air Line Pilots Association, International, pointed to the significance of the study results, which FAA intends to use to establish risk mitigation guidelines for drone operators.

“The dangers from [drones] that are operated unsafely in the national airspace are real – as we’ve seen in two recent midair collisions,” Canoll said in a Nov. 29 press release. “The findings released … in a Federal Aviation Administration-sponsored study, combined with previous data showing that near misses between [drones] and manned aircraft are occurring more often, provide compelling evidence that we need to act before tragedy strikes.”

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