In a collision between plane and drone, it’s bad news for both

US researchers have fired a drone at an aircraft wing to see what would happen in a collision, and the results aren’t pretty for either. Ben Lewis reports.

Drones hitting planes cause much more damage than expected.

Drones hitting planes cause much more damage than expected.

Poorman, et al/University of Dayton Research Institute

Flying a drone near an airport is a very, very bad idea. Now researchers in the US have demonstrated just how bad, by crashing a one into a plane wing at high speed, and the results aren’t pretty.

Tests carried out in Ohio by the University of Dayton’s Impact Physics laboratory mimicked a mid-air collision by firing a commercially available drone into a wing from a Mooney M20 light aircraft. Surprisingly, the drone caused significantly more damage than to the plane than expected.

The results were presented at the recent Unmanned Systems Academic Summit at Ohio State University by lead researcher Kevin Poorman.

“While the quadcopter broke apart, its energy and mass hung together to create significant damage to the wing,” says Poorman.

The high-speed video makes clear that the drone did not shatter on impact, but held together and tore open the leading edge of the wing, boring into the structure and damaging its main spar.

The drone was fired at the wing at about 380 kilometres per hour. A passenger jet’s landing approach is around 290 kilometres per hour, while an off-the-shelf drone can reach speeds nearing 80, meaning the test by Poorman and colleagues modelled a potentially feasible real-world impact.

The researchers repeated the experiment by propelling a similarly weighted model bird, made from gel, into a different part of the wing.

“The bird did more apparent damage to the leading edge of the wing, but the [drone] penetrated deeper into the wing and damaged the main spar, which the bird did not do,” Poorman explains.

The results come amid concerns about drones near active aircraft. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s website, for instance, lists 43 reports of drones in close proximity to aircraft near eight major capital city airports during 2017, while the US Federal Aviation Authority lists more than 1200 reports of drones near aircraft and airports in the first six months of 2018 alone.

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