The increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is of great concern to governments and organizations in keeping aircraft and areas safe from the hazards these drones present in collisions or if used by terrorists. We have already seen a drone collide with an airplane in Canada and also a collision last year when a small drone crashed into a large military helicopter.

While the extent of damage a drone could do in a collision with an airplane or other aircraft isn’t exactly known, the University of Dayton has tested what would happen if a UAV collided with an airplane wing.

In the test that was designed to mimic a midair collision at 238 miles per hour, researchers used a 2.1 lb DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter and aimed it at the wing of a Mooney M20 aircraft. The drone did not shatter upon impact but tore open the edge of the wing as it bore into the structure, damaging its main spar.

“While the quadcopter broke apart, its energy and mass hung together to create significant damage to the wing,” said Kevin Poormon, group leader for impact physics at the University of Dayton. “We’ve performed bird-strike testing for 40 years, and we’ve seen the kind of damage birds can do. Drones are similar in weight to some birds, and so we’ve watched with growing concern as reports of near collisions have increased, and even more so after the collision last year between an Army Blackhawk helicopter and a hobby drone that the operator flew beyond his line of sight.”

Poormon said that while the Blackhawk returned home safely with only minor damage, it could be only a matter of time before a drone causes more significant damage to aircraft. He added that there has been little to no data on the damage that UAVs can do with most of the information coming from modeling or simulations.

Researchers worked with Sinclair College National UAS Training and Certification Center because it offers a program in airframe aviation maintenance. The college also provided quadcopters for testing and loaned the University of Dayton an aircraft wing to serve as a target.

After the test collision, researchers fired a similarly weighted gel “bird” into different parts of the wing to compare results. The bird did more damage to the leading edge of the wing, but the Phantom drone penetrated deeper into the wing and damaged the main spar, which the test bird did not do.

Additional tests using similar and larger drones on other aerospace structures, such as windscreens and engines, would provide information about how catastrophic a collision would be. Researchers believe this is a first-of-its-kind controlled collision involving a drone and aerospace parts.

“It’s not practical to regulate manned air vehicles to try to avoid collisions with a quickly growing population of drones, but it is practical to regulate UAV operation,” Poormon said.

The FAA has already issued a number of regulations to prevent drones from certain airspaces such as military bases and airports. However, the University of Dayton researchers said more could be done related to UAV production to enhance safety including building drones that easily shatter on impact or keeping drones under a certain weight limit.

“The shipping industry is already investigating ways to use drones for package delivery,” Poormon said. “That would require larger and heavier drones which, when combined with the weight of a package, could easily outweigh a Canada goose, known to do significant damage to aircraft.”

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