Tests Reveal That Even Small Drones Can Damage Planes

A recent test performed at the Impact Physics Lab at the University of Dayton Research Institute in Florida showed that even small drones, such as the popular DJI Phantom can severely damage an aircraft in flight. The test was designed to mimic what would happen if a drone collided with an airplane flying at 238 mph. A 2.1-pound Phantom 2 drone was used in the test where it was launched into the wing of a Mooney M20 aircraft. The drone didn’t shatter on impact, yet it still managed to tear open the wing’s edge. In fact, the drone actually entered the wing’s structure damaging the main spar, which is obviously very dangerous to a manned aircraft.

According to Kevin Poorman, the group leader of the project at Impact Physics, the drones’s mass and energy was enough to create significant wing damage. The video and results of the test were presented in August during the 4th annual Unmanned Systems Academic Summit at the Sinclair College Conference Center. Poorman’s team regularly performs bird-strike tests on airplane structures like engines, windshields, and wings. So adapting to test drone impacts was a natural progression for them.

Poorman also said that with the growing number of drone owners, the risk of a catastrophe happening is also growing. He and his team have been hearing of many reports of near misses causing great concern. It is quite scary to think something as little as a DJI Phantom can cause the death of hundreds of people. But, having performed such bird-strike tests for over four decades, and now the drone tests, Poorman is quite familiar with the amount of damage a drone can cause to airplanes.

A good example is last year’s case where a DJI Phantom drone accidentally hit a military Blackhawk helicopter. The drone operator was not aware of the rules against flying drones beyond visual line of sight which led to the collision. Luckily, the helicopter was not severely damaged and no one was injured. According to Poorman and his team, it’s only a matter of time before we hear of a drone strike causing a plane or helicopter to go down.

Additional tests by Poorman’s team have been planned to investigate the kind of damage a larger drone would cause to engines ,windshields, and wings in the event of a collision. Tests such as these are necessary when creating more regulations in the drone industry. The drone industry is still relatively new, and we have a lot to learn to make sure that all drones can operate safely in our skies.

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