Is the FAA Overblowing Risks of Drones?

A new study from George Mason University 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.


“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.”


Click the image to read George Mason’s full report on the risk of small drones.

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.




About the Author

Steve Crowe · Steve Crowe is managing editor of Robotics Trends. Steve has been writing about technology since 2008. He lives in Belchertown, MA with his wife and daughter.
Contact Steve Crowe: scrowe@ehpub.com  ·  View More by Steve Crowe.




Comments

Totally_Lost · March 22, 2016 · 1:58 pm

How do we implement an ADS-B like squitter system for drones with 802.11a/n?

ADS-B is pretty much standard for aircraft above 2,500ft AGL, and required above 10,000ft. It’s probably a VERY GOOD IDEA for drones flying higher than 400ft to carry a low cost ADS-B receiver based on RTL2832U+R820T DVB-T USB Digital TV Tuner Receiver so they can “see” the ADS-B squitter and identify nearby maned aircraft. These cost less than $50, frequently less than $20.

For drone-to-drone I would suggest an OpenWRT 802.11a/n system, where we use the FAA registration number as the SSID. Combined with a low cost GPS (already necessary for autonomous drones), we reformat the GPS info into 1090 ES, extended squitter message format with position, velocity, time, plus we add intent (expected flight path as way points and times) so that we can also construct a practical realtime collision avoidance system. We transmit the ADS-B 1090 ES data appended to the 802.11a/n beacon data. We randomly change non-overlapping channels every 5 seconds. Channel groups are assigned in altitude bands.

Totally_Lost · March 22, 2016 · 12:58 pm

There are several real issues here, the primary one is the FAA’s dependence on visual “See and Avoid”. Just like birds, small drones can not be seen until the pilot is already in a situation were it can not be avoided, simply due to the high difference is relative air speeds. And the solution is the same as in controlled airspace, mandatory RF beacons to improve on visual identification, but a next generation system that can handle millions, not hundreds of aircraft in a local area, and is cheap enough that it’s mandatory on every drone, and EVERY civil aviation aircraft, with AT LEAST ADS-B squitter functionality.

This is absolutely necessary for drones, and I believe absolutely necessary for human controlled flights as well, as there are already several thousand near misses in general aviation per year already, and increasing. The ratio of near misses to actual impacts is not small.

I floated a proposal in 2012 that we should build an ADS-B like squitter system for drones based on 802.11a/n radios, with redundancy because they are so cheap (less than $40/unit), that could/should be extended to general aviation as well. That band from 5.2-5.7GHz is very lightly used, low power, and supported by a number of existing low cost chipsets. The range in air is a few miles to a few dozen miles, depending on transmit power and antenna gain. Optimal is probably a few miles with relatively low power and omni antenna .... extended forward with a higher gain directional antenna.  A system that redundantly deployed three per craft, that randomly hopped frequently in frequency would naturally scale well and be interference tolerant with ground use.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_dependent_surveillance_–_broadcast


Totally_Lost · March 22, 2016 at 12:58 pm

There are several real issues here, the primary one is the FAA’s dependence on visual “See and Avoid”. Just like birds, small drones can not be seen until the pilot is already in a situation were it can not be avoided, simply due to the high difference is relative air speeds. And the solution is the same as in controlled airspace, mandatory RF beacons to improve on visual identification, but a next generation system that can handle millions, not hundreds of aircraft in a local area, and is cheap enough that it’s mandatory on every drone, and EVERY civil aviation aircraft, with AT LEAST ADS-B squitter functionality.

This is absolutely necessary for drones, and I believe absolutely necessary for human controlled flights as well, as there are already several thousand near misses in general aviation per year already, and increasing. The ratio of near misses to actual impacts is not small.

I floated a proposal in 2012 that we should build an ADS-B like squitter system for drones based on 802.11a/n radios, with redundancy because they are so cheap (less than $40/unit), that could/should be extended to general aviation as well. That band from 5.2-5.7GHz is very lightly used, low power, and supported by a number of existing low cost chipsets. The range in air is a few miles to a few dozen miles, depending on transmit power and antenna gain. Optimal is probably a few miles with relatively low power and omni antenna .... extended forward with a higher gain directional antenna.  A system that redundantly deployed three per craft, that randomly hopped frequently in frequency would naturally scale well and be interference tolerant with ground use.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_dependent_surveillance_–_broadcast

Totally_Lost · March 22, 2016 at 1:58 pm

How do we implement an ADS-B like squitter system for drones with 802.11a/n?

ADS-B is pretty much standard for aircraft above 2,500ft AGL, and required above 10,000ft. It’s probably a VERY GOOD IDEA for drones flying higher than 400ft to carry a low cost ADS-B receiver based on RTL2832U+R820T DVB-T USB Digital TV Tuner Receiver so they can “see” the ADS-B squitter and identify nearby maned aircraft. These cost less than $50, frequently less than $20.

For drone-to-drone I would suggest an OpenWRT 802.11a/n system, where we use the FAA registration number as the SSID. Combined with a low cost GPS (already necessary for autonomous drones), we reformat the GPS info into 1090 ES, extended squitter message format with position, velocity, time, plus we add intent (expected flight path as way points and times) so that we can also construct a practical realtime collision avoidance system. We transmit the ADS-B 1090 ES data appended to the 802.11a/n beacon data. We randomly change non-overlapping channels every 5 seconds. Channel groups are assigned in altitude bands.


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