As consumer drones become increasingly common, governments around the world are keeping a close eye at the dangers they pose — especially to regular aircraft. The UK government has even commissioned a series of test crashes between drones and planes, to find out exactly how much damage a quadcopter could cause in a real-life collision.
The tests are being funded by the UK's Department for Transport and will be carried out by military contractor Qinetiq, with a full report set to be published before the end of the year. A spokesperson for the UK's Civil Aviation Authority, which sets the country's drone regulations and is providing technical support for the tests, told The Verge that the crashes will be examining damage to airplane fuselage. Contrary to a recent report by The Daily Mail, the crashes won't be carried out in mid-air and nor will they involve commercial jets — military aircraft will be used instead.
"The testing of potential collision impacts between a drone and a fixed wing aircraft is currently being carried out on behalf of the UK Ministry of Defense," a CAA spokesperson told The Verge. "The findings of this research is expected to be published when completed." However, it's not known where the tests will take place, or exactly what they will involve. Neither the Ministry of Defense nor the Department of Transport would comment when contacted by The Verge.
In the UK, there have been a number of reports of "near misses" between drones and commercial airplanes, but regulators say the danger can be overblown. One so-called collision in April this year was later blamed on a plastic bag blowing into a runway. To date in Europe, there have been only three confirmed collisions between drones and aircraft, all involving single or two-seater planes, with damage limited to scrapes on the paintwork.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority released a report last year logging 678 drone-sightings and near misses from US pilots, but a closer look at the data shows these numbers were inflated. An investigation by the Academy of Model Aeronautics found that only 3.5 percent of these sightings were actual near misses, and many objects were being misclassified as drones including "a large vulture," a "mini blimp," and "a UFO."
However, drones certainly still pose a danger to larger aircraft, and the damage they can cause needs to be assessed in the same way that regulators and aeronautic companies examine collisions with birds. (This phenomenon is known as "birdstrike," and has caused 255 deaths worldwide since 1988 as well as $900 million annual damage in the US.)
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recently published its own report on drone-airplane collisions, concluding that at altitudes below 10,000 feet, a crash with a drone that weighed less than 1.5 kilograms (that covers most hobbyist drones) would be minimal. That means no fatalities, but perhaps light injuries to passengers and crew.
The EASA concluded that further studies needed to be carried out, but these findings — as with the CAA's — will be used to determine future drone regulations. In years to come, this won't just affect hobbyists, but perhaps also drone delivery schemes run by companies like Amazon and Google. If these services become widespread, then knowing the potential damage they can do to passenger aircraft is crucial.