Drones present minimal threat to aircraft, says study

Using data on bird strikes, study estimates danger from consumer drones is minor

A DJI Phantom 3 drone seen during a demonstration in San Jose, California, on Nov. 17, 2015. Credit: Martyn Williams

A DJI Phantom 3 drone seen during a demonstration in San Jose, California, on Nov. 17, 2015. Credit: Martyn Williams

Just how likely is it that a drone hits an aircraft and causes a death or injury? Not very, according to research from George Mason University. The study suggests the Federal Aviation Administration could significantly loosen rules regarding private drone use and not endanger general aviation.

Citing a number of "near misses" with drones, the FAA recently began requiring pilots to register before flying their drones and agree to abide by several basic rules of the sky. Almost 400,000 pilots have registered in the last three months, the FAA said on Monday.

The FAA's requirement, covering drones weighing over 250 grams (0.55 pounds), got George Mason University research fellow Eli Dourado thinking: Just how dangerous might drones be?

He started by turning to the FAA's wildlife strike database, a voluntary database of incidents involving animal strikes with aircraft, and married that with an estimate of 10 billion birds in U.S. airspace. He looked at the amount of time the birds spend flying and where bird strikes happened. He also drew on an FAA database of the average weight per species.

The result?

"A two-kilogram drone would cause an injury once every 187 million years of continuous operation," he said.

Put another way, with a million drones in the sky flying continuously, they'd lead to an accident that would cause an injury or death once every 187 years.

"It’s pretty safe by existing aviation standards," he added. Dourado did the research with Samuel Hammond, a master's degree fellow at the university.

Dourado admits there are some limitations to his estimate. Birds are softer and more likely to get squished on impact than drones made of plastic and metal, so they might represent less of a threat. But birds are also more likely to be encountered in flocks, where the danger of having several sucked into two or more engines is greater.

Perhaps the most famous instance of this was US Airways flight 1549, which had to ditch into New York's Hudson River after numerous bird strikes took out both engines. The 2009 water landing caused several injuries, most of them minor.

The research also doesn't take into account the possibility of someone maliciously trying to hit an aircraft -- something a bird is unlikely to do, but also something that it's almost impossible to regulate against.

The takeaway from the study?

"The FAA is considering a micro UAS rule that would allow a 2kg drone to operate in more or less unregulated fashion as long as it stays away from an airport," said Dourado. "This shows it’s a pretty good approach, and we could go a bit heavier."

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags drones

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

David Coyle

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

I rate the printer as a 5 out of 5 stars as it has been able to fit seamlessly into my busy and mobile lifestyle.

Kurt Hegetschweiler

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

It’s perfect for mobile workers. Just take it out — it’s small enough to sit anywhere — turn it on, load a sheet of paper, and start printing.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?