Can a drone strike bring down a passenger plane? The UK’s Department of Transport is hoping to end this controversial debate with deliberate mid-air collisions. Yes, you read that right.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will purposely crash drones into the windows and fuselage of passenger jets in flight during upcoming safety tests, reports the Daily Mail. The UK government has pledged £250,000 to the study following a series of near misses with passenger jets around major UK airports.
The report doesn’t offer further specifics about the tests, such as the size and speed of the drones being used, how many drones will be flown into a plane during each individual test, and at what point of the flight does the collision occur.
“We are conducting mid-air collision studies for the CAA to look at impact of aircraft with unmanned vehicles,” says Dr. Pete Downer of the Ministry of Defence. “There is a series of trials about the security risks and we need to continue this with a commercial study. There will be further studies of mid-air collisions of drone impact with fuselage and windows.”
The mid-air crash tests will be conducted by Qinetiq, a British defense technology company that has access to 5,000 square miles of restricted airspace in Snowdonia, Wales. So no need to worry about a potential plane crash in a populated area.
According to the Daily Mail, there have been 23 near-misses between aircraft and drones near UK airports in one six-month period. Of those incidents, 12 were given the most serious rating of risk.
Tests have previously been conducted to determine the potential damage drones can inflict on planes, but not tests of the mid-air kind. In 2015, researchers at Virginia Tech conducted computer-simulated tests that showed an 8-pound drone would have “devastating” effects if sucked into the turbofan engines of commercial aircrafts. The tests discovered that drone debris thrashing about inside the engine could reach speeds 715 miles per hour and could lead to catastrophic engine failure.
While some airline pilots have disregarded the threat of drones, other aviation experts have stressed their concerns. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who safely landed a plane on the Hudson River in 2009, says a drone will cause a plane accident. Sullenberger says, “it’s not a matter of if it will happen. It’s a matter of when it will happen.”
Tony Tyler, director-general and CEO of the IATA, told an audience at the Singpore Airshow that regulations need to be in place before a serious accident occurs. “The issue is real. We have plenty of pilot reports of drones where they were not expected, particularly at low altitudes around airports. There is no denying that there is a real and growing threat to the safety of civilian aircraft.”