A Federal Aviation Administration study found small drones could potentially cause more damage to an aircraft than a bird strike, researchers say.
The FAA’s Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence – also known as ASSURE— worked with researchers across the country on the study.
The research found heavier, stiffer components, such as a drone motor, battery or a camera, could cause more structural damage to an aircraft than birds of the same weight and size, said Kiran D’Souza, an Ohio State University assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Researchers investigated what would happen if a drone hit the body of an aircraft or was ingested into an aircraft engine, D’Souza said in an interview with this news outlet.
The experiments were a mixture of computer simulations and lab tests, he said. For example, at the University of Dayton Research Institute, parts of drones were fired into aluminum panels to simulate an aircraft, he said.
The study showed the need to develop sense and avoidance technology to avoid mid-air collisions, D’Souza said.
OSU and ASSURE members Mississippi State University, Montana State University and Wichita State University were the primary researchers on the study.
While the effect of bird strikes on airplanes is well documented, little is known about the effects of small unmanned drones with stronger materials hitting aircraft, according to Marty Rodgers, ASSURE director and a Mississippi State researcher.
“The results of this work are critical to the safety of commercial air travel here in the United States and around the world,” he said in a statement.
Researchers evaluated the potential impact of drones weighing 2.7 pounds to 8 pounds on a single-aisle commercial jet and on a business jet, according to OSU.
“Even small unmanned aircraft systems can do significant damage to engines,” D’Souza said in a statement.
In future tests, researchers will focus on collisions with private planes, helicopters and commercial turbofan engines, ASSURE said.
Studies were expected to continue through 2021.
While the research studied the potential for damage to an aircraft, it did not estimate the probability of a collision between an unmanned drone and a plane, D’Souza said.
The FAA has reported a rising number of pilot sightings of small drones as the popularity of the small unmanned vehicles has soared.
Drone users are required to operate by altitude and space restrictions.