Can a Tiny Drone Take Down an Airliner?

There’s only one way to find out...

A Brazilian Air Force AMX with birdstrike damage. Birds are feathers and bone—no bets what metal and plastic would do. (Henrique Rubens Balta de Oliveira (via Wikipedia))
airspacemag.com

How dangerous is the consumer drone threat to aircraft in flight? Governments, industry, and pilots take it very seriously. On October 18, The Verge reported that the UK’s Department of Transport commissioned a series of test crashes between drones and planes, to find out what sort of damage would occur should the two collide.

In April, a British Airways pilot reported that an object—possibly a drone—struck his Airbus A320. The subsequent investigation determined a drone wasn’t involved. An FAA report, leaked to the Washington Post, however, states that there have been hundreds of close calls between drones and other aircraft, although the Academy of Model Aircraft disputes this in their own study.

There are key differences between drone and bird strikes. Consumer drones are constructed of metal and plastic, materials more likely to inflict damage on aircraft than the feathers and lightweight bones of birds. And while the FAA undertakes wildlife mitigation efforts around airports, birds can’t be taught not to fly in the path of aircraft, and technological solutions can’t completely eliminate the threat. Drone pilots, however, can follow general safety rules that—in theory—will greatly reduce the odds of consumer drones hitting manned aircraft. We can also increase safety through a variety of “deconfliction” mechanisms.  

Despite education and technology, could a “dronestrike” involving a consumer drone, weighing as little as just a pound or two, down a large airliner? Very likely it could. Because doubling the closing speed of an impact of a given drone with other aircraft quadruples the kinetic energy imparted, and because tripling the closing speed multiplies it by nearly ten-fold, a small drone flying high enough to hit an airliner traveling hundreds of miles per hour could potentially cause enough damage to send it uncontrollably out of the sky. 

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About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Flight of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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