“Contrary to sensational media headlines, the skies are crowded not by drones, but by fowl.”
That’s the synopsis of a new study from George Mason University that suggests the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is overblowing the risk small drones pose to manned aircraft. The study found that an incident in which an airplane is damaged by a drone weighing 4.5 pounds should happen once every 1.87 million years of drone flight time. An injury or fatality? About 100 times less likely than that.
“On average, only 3 percent of reported small-bird strikes ever result in damage, compared to 39 percent of large-bird strikes,” Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond said in their report.
Considering that there are some 27,000 daily commercial aircraft flights in the US, in 25 years there have been only 37 incidents of wildlife strikes causing injuries or death.
“In 2014, there were 13,414 reported collisions with birds and flying mammals, counting incidents in which flocks of birds hit an aircraft as a single collision,” the researchers noted. “As there are on the order of 10 billion birds in US airspace, this means that plausibly one bird in 1 million collides with an aircraft every year.”
The George Mason study did acknowledge that there’s a lack of data on exactly what kind of damage a small drone can inflict on an airplane because turbines are only tested to see how they’ll handle bird strikes. However, a recent study conducted by Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering says 8-pound drones would have “devastating” effects if sucked into the turbofan engines of commercial aircrafts.
Computer-simulated tests showed an 8-pound drone would rip apart the fan blades of a 9-foot diameter turbofan engine during take-off in less than 1/200th of a second. Furthermore, 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.
“Because the damage is spread to a large section of the engine, it is unlikely that it will be able to maintain thrust,” says Javid Bayandor, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and director of the university’s Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids (CRASH) Laboratory.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a commercial airline association that helps develop policy on critical aviation issues, also recently expressed concerns about the “real and growing threat” drones pose to commercial aviation. 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.” Tyler added that there needs to be a sensible approach to regulation and a pragmatic method of enforcement for those who disregard rules and regulations.
The FAA, of course, has been voicing its concerns about the risks of small drones for some time, and that partially is why it implemented mandatory registration on drones that weigh between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds. Registration costs $5 and is valid for three years. Upon completion of the registration process, the web application generates a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that includes a unique identification number for that must be marked on all of your drones.
Failure to register a drone can result in civil penalties up to $27,500, and criminal penalties for failure to register can include fines of up to $250,000.