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 PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags drones

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

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

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?