Quadcopters are a huge hit with consumers and sales of the device certainly show no sign of peaking.
While the vast majority of drone owners fly their machines in safely and responsibly, there’s a tiny number who are choosing to ignore the rules and take potentially catastrophic risks with their flying machine.
We’re talking about drone flights close to airports, reports of which have been on the rise in recent years, an apparent reflection of the increase in drone ownership.
With little research having been carried out on the impact of a drone strike on an aircraft, and thankfully very few real-life cases to examine, a team at the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) decided to hit the lab to find out more.
The researchers set about designing a test to mimic a midair collision between a drone and an airplane at an impact speed of 238 miles per hour.
Following calibration work to ensure proper control of the speed, orientation, and trajectory of the drone, the team launched a 2.1-pound DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter at the wing of a Mooney M20 aircraft, a small piston-powered, propeller-driven aircraft.
You might have expected the quadcopter to shatter on impact with the aircraft, but as you can see in the video above, the mostly plastic flying machine instead tore open the leading edge of the wing as it bore into the airplane.
“While the quadcopter broke apart, its energy and mass hung together to create significant damage to the wing,” Kevin Poormon, group leader for impact physics at UDRI, said in an account of the experiment.
Poormon expressed interest in conducting further tests using similar and larger drones on other parts of an aircraft such as windscreens and engines to learn more about the threat to airplanes posed by the remotely controlled machines.
While regulations have some effect on how people fly their quadcopters, Poormon suggests manufacturers should consider designing drones that break up more easily on impact — to reduce damage to objects they collide with — as one way to increase safety.
UDRI’s test focused on the wing of a small aircraft, but for many people the real danger lies in impact with jet engines. Birds strikes can ruin an engine, but what about the effects of a drone, which contains harder materials and carries a potentially explosive lithium-ion battery, that’s sucked into the engine of a plane shortly after take-off or as it’s coming in to land?
To date, there’s only been one recorded incident in the U.S. of a drone colliding with an aircraft. It happened in 2017 over New York City, and involved a Phantom 4 and an Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. In that particular incident, the quadcopter came off worse.