It takes anywhere between three to five years to qualify as an airline transport pilot. With dedication and skill, qualified individuals are trusted to fly in the airspace for civil aviation. Meanwhile, airport staff meticulously keep track of flight planning and dispatch, taking every measure to safely streamline flight plans for airports around the world.
But the general public no longer require a pilot’s license.
Drone technology has made it easier than ever to breach and fly in controlled airspace, and the security of airports is increasingly under threat. This technology can jeopardise the safety and security of airport airspace, and can have disruptive consequences. A drone shut down the UK’s second busiest airport for 36 hours. And most recently, they sparked disruption at Madrid’s airport after drone sightings nearby.
Drone Technology and Airplane Damage
Drones are increasingly popular. Whether used for recreation, security, commercial use or even criminal disruption, there are over 1.7 million drones registered in the U.S. alone. With numbers this high, we can only speculate numbers for ownership of drones globally, let alone the number of unregistered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
This makes the threat of drones hitting airplanes a very real possibility, and impact tests have found a few potential consequences of a drone hitting airplanes, including:
- Exterior damage
- Technology damage
- Damage to the main structural framework
- Harm to jet engine blades
- Drones embedding into aircrafts
- Drone batteries causing fire
Not to mention, the certain damage a drone incident can do to reputation and public image. So, what happens if a drone hits a plane?
Examples of Drone Damage to Airplanes
Just before landing at Tijuana International Airport, Mexico, a suspected drone struck the nose of a Boeing 737, causing damage to the radio and communications equipment inside the nose of the aircraft. Although the airplane landed safely with zero injuries, it instigated a wider conversation about drone damage to airplanes. Especially when technology such as radio and communications are so vital for the safe landing of aircraft.
However, this example is only a suspected drone. We’ve put together a few real-life examples of the damage a drone can do to an aircraft below to highlight the future impact drones might have on the civil aviation industry.
Small Drone Strikes Airplane Wing At 238 Miles Per Hour
The University of Dayton Research Institute conducted a controlled impact test. It demonstrated the collision of a 2.1lb (952g) DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter drone to the wing of a Mooney M20, a civil aviation aircraft, at a speed of 238 mph. Shockingly, the study found that large airplanes don’t always win in collisions with small UAVs. You can see the video below.
The drone caused a hole in the wing and damaged the spar of the airplane. Kevin Poormon, group leader for impact physics at UDRI, explained that “while the quadcopter broke apart, its energy and mass hung together to create significant damage to the wing.”
For airports, this study raises many critical cost, security, and safety concerns. If the costs of aircraft downtime, repairs, replacements, and reputational damage aren’t enough to cause concern – the potential safety implications of a damaged airplane wing to personnel and passengers do.
Quadcopter Drone Rips Apart Turbofan Blades
The University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences created The Crashworthiness Aerospace Structures and Hybrids Lab (CRASH). The department tests the impact of drone collisions with aircraft. They have built a database of over 150 UAV models and investigate the potential impact of drones using computer simulations.
One study demonstrated that an 8lb quadcopter drone can rip apart the fan blades of a 9-foot diameter turbofan engine in less than 1/200th of a second. Watch the video below.
The fragments of the drone after impact travel at high velocities, propagating the damage by shredding up inside the jet engine. And while engine cowlings are designed to contain failures, the risk of damage and repairs will only waste time for airports and money for airplane operators.
Large Drone Impact is Proven to be Worse than Birds
An adult Canadian goose can weigh up to 14.3lbs. Although UAVs can come in much smaller sizes, a bird’s fleshy exterior is no match for the impact of a large and hard object flying at fast speeds.
That’s why the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) conducted a study into the impact of drone collisions on aircraft, to test whether they are more damaging than bird strikes.
The study recreated computer-simulated collisions between drones and airplanes. The tests were conducted over 14 months and considered 140 scenarios. Including the risk of a battery fire after a crash. They tested two types of drones that weighed 2.7lb to 8lb.
The study found that airplane windscreens are most vulnerable to drone impacts. Researchers also suggested that aircraft manufacturing standards are not appropriate for the current growth in drone use, making drone collision prevention essential.
Lithium Batteries of Drones Can Catch Fire on Impact
The U.K.-based Cranfield University’s Impact and Armour Group explored the impact of drone batteries in aircraft collisions. Many UAVs use lithium batteries as their power source, with the battery being the largest mass in most drones.
The department conducted a trial that simulated a drone battery hitting an engine fan blade. Interestingly, they found that drone fires within the engine aren’t a significant cause for concern. This is because the drone will be thrown out the back of the engine before anything else happens to it, minimising the impact of the fire.
However, department head Dr Horsfall explained that the real threat appears when drones are embedded in the aircraft. He explained “if (the drone) hit the radome or the leading edge…you’ve potentially got a fire source in there now as well. If you look at the picture from bird strikes, it’s not unusual for the bird to end up embedded in the aircraft, particularly if it hits the softer areas like the radome. So there is potentially a fire risk from a UAV on top of the impact risk.”
If a Drone Hits a Plane? It's Not Good
As drone usage continues to grow, drones are likely to impact airport security and safety. Especially without ways of identifying and tracking drones. Learn more about how airports can mitigate the risks of drones in our brochure.