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How Much Risk Do Small Drones Pose to Aircraft, Really?

The UK government has commissioned a project that will analyse the damage drones can do to aircraft.

by Ben Sullivan
Oct 18 2016, 2:35pm

Image: Shutterstock

Bird strikes have long been a danger to both civilian and military aircraft, but with consumer drone use on the rise authorities are growing more concerned about the risks quadcopters and other small unmanned aerial systems pose to aviation. There has been a significant rise of drone-related near misses at airports around the world, though actual collisions are happening too. And the consequences could be fatal.

To assess the risk posed by small-fry drones, the UK government has commissioned a project that will analyse the damage drones can do to aircraft, according to the Daily Mail. Scheduled to be carried out by the Department of Transport, in conjunction with private contractor Qinetiq and the Ministry of Defence, consumer drones will presumably be flung at military aircraft to test the destruction they do to cockpit windshields, wings, and engines.

A spokesperson for the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was unable to provide Motherboard with any more details, but said that the findings of the research may be published at some stage in the future. Qinetiq confirmed the trials but also could not provide additional information by time of publication.

The UK's Ministry of Defence told the Daily Mail earlier this week that the "mid-air collision tests" will help the CAA study how aircraft that are hit by drones are affected. "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 spokesperson told the newspaper. The tests will reportedly be carried out in restricted airspace in Snowdonia, Wales.

Read more: Terror Groups Are Strapping Bombs to Cheap Consumer Drones

In April, a study by George Mason University in the US advised that drones do not pose as big a risk to aircraft as the government claims. The authors examined 25 years of data from the Federal Aviation Authority's wildlife strike database.

"Although aircraft collide with birds many thousands of times per year, only a tiny fraction of those collisions result in damage to the aircraft, much less human injuries or deaths. The most serious reported incidents typically involved flocks of large birds," the study reads. "Since the addition of UAS [unmanned aerial systems] to the airspace is similar in many respects to an increase in the bird population, we conclude that the risk to the airspace caused by small drones (for example, weighing up to 2kg, or 4.41 pounds) flying in solitary formation is minimal."

But authorities are also likely worried about intentional threats drones can pose to aircraft. Last week we reported on the rise of "weaponized" consumer drones in the hands of the Islamic State. It doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to think how quadcopters could be used to purposely fly into aircraft near airports, and it will be helpful for the aviation industry to know whether such drones pose a substantial risk or will just be harmless nuisance.

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