This Is What Happens When A Drone Slams Into A Plane's Wing At Speed

As drones become more common, so will collisions with aircraft. Lukas Gojda/Shutterstock

Rachel Baxter 23 Oct 2018, 13:05

In recent years, drones – whether used for construction, rescue missions, or fun – have quite literally taken off. But what risks do they pose? You might think that it would be virtually impossible for a little drone to do much damage to a large aircraft. But worryingly, that isn’t the case.

Researchers at the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) tested what would happen if a drone hit a large commercial plane’s wing traveling at 383 kilometers (238 miles) per hour, and the result was a little alarming. The findings were presented at the fourth annual Unmanned Systems Academic Summit earlier this year.

“We wanted to help the aviation community and the drone industry understand the dangers that even recreational drones can pose to manned aircraft before a significant event occurs. But there is little to no data about the type of damage UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] can do, and the information that is available has come only from modeling and simulations,” said Kevin Poormon, group leader for impact physics at UDRI, in a statement.

“We knew the only way to really study and understand the problem was to create an actual collision, and we’re fully equipped to do that.”

The drone was a 0.9-kilogram (2.1-pound) DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter and the plane wing was chosen to represent the leading edge structure of a commercial transport plane.  

To the team’s surprise, the drone managed to create a rather large hole as it violently crashed into the side of the wing.

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

Poormon and his colleagues also looked at how bird strikes affected the wing. They fired a “gel bird” of similar weight to the drone at it and looked at how the two objects’ impacts differed. They manipulated speed, orientation, and trajectory to make the crashes as realistic as possible.

“Drones are similar in weight to some birds, and so we’ve watched with growing concern as reports of near collisions have increased,” said Poormon.

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

Last September, a drone collided with a military helicopter just east of Staten Island in New York. The helicopter was damaged, but managed to land safely. Just last week, a rescue helicopter in Auckland, New Zealand, nearly crashed into a drone that whizzed past it just 3-4 meters (10-13 feet) away.

Poormon noted that more research is needed to find out how drones impact other parts of a plane, such as the windscreens and engines. For now, it seems that drones could pose more of a threat to large aircraft than we might like to assume.

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