Drone Collisions With Aircraft. What’s the risk?

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As drones become more and more popular and drone density increases, it’s important to be aware of the risks they pose and take steps to avoid drone collisions with any other aircraft type. Drones are now commonplace and it is self-evident that there is a risk of conflict between unmanned and manned aircraft, but that risk has been mitigated in all kinds of ways.

Delivery drones could one day be criss-crossing the urban landscape, coming into potential conflict with passenger drones and other ascending or descending drones.

Bird Strike and Drone Strike

Bird strikes are a risk to manned aircraft. The impact bird strike on the windshield of a light aircraft, or the engine of an airliner is well documented by real-life examples. Every type of pilot needs to be aware of the potential for bird strikes because of the impact a bird weighing a few pounds can have on an aircraft of any size.

A mid air collision between an unmanned aircraft and a manned aircraft might result in a propeller strike or the absorption of the drone into the aircraft engine.

While it is unlikely that a small drone could cause a plane to crash, the danger lies in the fact that drones are often hard to spot.

Drone Legislation

drone legislation to prevent drone collisions
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In some countries, guidelines on the operation of drones were issued and subsequently, some have been enshrined into law. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority supports the development of drones but it has also ensured that each drone pilot and drone operator is verified and accountable.

The reckless operation of drones by rogue operators of drones continues to cause problems, not just for aviators and commercial aircraft, but also for legitimate operators of unmanned aerial vehicles.

A few years ago, there were reports from pilots of drones flying dangerously close to aircraft.

In a report published in 2018, the CAA stated that there have been “seven confirmed cases of direct in-flight contact between drones and civil or military manned aircraft worldwide”. 2018 was also the year of the infamous Gatwick drone incident.

While none of those seven was in the UK, the same report goes on to say that there were 59 occasions between April 2016 and March 2017 where UK pilots reported “suspected drones in proximity to their aircraft”.

However, as the report reminded us, there is a difference between flying in proximity and colliding with an aircraft. The consequences of such a collision would depend on several factors, not least of which is the size and weight of the UAV and the manned aircraft.

Operating Altitudes of Drones vs Aircraft

Commercial and recreational drones operate from ground level up to a ceiling of 400 feet. Remember, this is measured AGL, from where the drone pilot is standing. So if you’re on top of a 500′ hill or cliff and you launch your drone you can fly up to 400′ above you. This would put your drone 900′ above sea level.

Aircraft, except for landing and take-off, generally operate above 500 feet above ground level. However, there are exceptions; low-flying military aircraft is one well-known example. Anyone familiar with Mach Loop in Wales, or any of the other low-flying practice areas, will understand how suddenly such aircraft can appear.

Emergency services helicopters and other helicopter types are also unpredictable in terms of where they may appear below 400 feet. So the onus remains with the UAV operators to take the necessary precautionary measures.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is essential. Even though a drone pilot may be operating legally with the land owner’s permission, checks need to be made for any grass airstrips or private helicopter landing areas nearby.

As the Drone Age evolves the technology is maturing. For several years now DJI’s software has disabled the flight of their drones within the proximity of airfields around the world.

So it’s a sign of positive progress but more needs to be done. Just as people can buy sophisticated drones which contain in-built safety features that prevent flight near airports, so can people build or buy other unmanned aircraft that do not contain these safeguards.

So as well as technological improvements we also have to speed up the maturing of human behaviour. We can make all the laws we like but every new law assumes that it acts as a deterrent and that it can be enforced if contravened. Prevention is always preferable to a cure and it’s also a lot cheaper.

Drone Pilots & Drone Operators

It takes time, money, and commitment to become a professional drone pilot. It’s fairly safe to assume that professional UAV operators would not risk their livelihoods by actions that may bring them into conflict with other aircraft or local laws.

So the effort should be directed at recreational pilots who fly drones for fun. Some measures were introduced a few years ago, including leaflets and websites, for example, the DroneSafe website, which has now closed and has been replaced with these three main sources of advice:

Technology For Preventing Drone Collisions

Drone manufacturers have developed obstacle avoidance capabilities of their UAVs and continue to expand on them. Some drones, like the DJI Mavic and Spark, already have this capability but they are designed for avoiding fixed or at least slow-moving objects.

Perhaps in years to come UAVs will be programmed with something similar to the ACAS systems aboard conventional aircraft.

For now, it’s up to all drone pilots, recreational or professional, to not only make themselves aware of the law and guidelines but to also act as ambassadors for the sport or profession.

This may mean they have to gently educate or persuade other drone pilots into the safe and legal operation of drones.

In Summary

With the rapid expansion of commercial drone use, the risk of collisions between drones and other aircraft has become a serious concern. A collision between even a small drone and a passenger jet could cause significant damage and loss of life. In order to mitigate this risk, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has instituted strict regulations governing where and when drones can be flown.

Commercial drones are only allowed to fly in designated fly zones, and those zones are typically restricted to lower altitudes where the risk of collision is lower. Additionally, all drones must be registered with the FAA, and operators are required to pass an safety test before being allowed to fly their drones commercially.

Despite these precautions, the risk of collision remains high. Drones are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and more and more drones are flying in the same airspace at the same time. The potential for a mid-air collision is therefore increasing.

To help reduce this risk, drone manufacturers are working on developing collision avoidance systems. These systems use sensors to detect other aircraft in the vicinity and then navigate the drone around them. However, these systems are still in development, and it will likely be some time before they are widely used.

In the meantime, it is important that commercial drone operators take steps to minimize the risk of collisions. They should always obey the flight restrictions put in place by the FAA, and they should be careful not to fly their drones too close to other aircraft. By taking these precautions, we can help ensure that our skies remain safe for everyone.


Can a drone damage a plane?

In theory, a drone could damage a plane. If a drone were to collide with a plane in midair, the drone could potentially cause serious damage to the plane’s engine, nose, windshield, or the leading edge of a wing.

Can drones help prevent bird collisions?

On the one hand, drones could be equipped with sensors that detect birds and warn the airfield operator or air traffic control to take action. On the other hand, drones may also disturb birds and cause them to fly into areas where they are more likely to collide with aircraft.

Has a drone ever caused a plane crash?

To date, there have been no documented cases of a drone causing a plane crash. However, there have been several close calls. In 2016, for example, a drone collided with a commercial aircraft in Canada, causing the plane to make an emergency landing.

There have also been several reports of near-misses between drones and planes in the United States. While it is possible that a drone could cause a plane crash in the future, such an incident seems unlikely given the stringent safety regulations that are currently in place.

How common are drone accidents? (of any type)

There is no question that drones have revolutionized the way we live and work. These autonomous flying machines have transformed photography, data collection, and a host of other industries.

However, drones are not without their risks. In recent years, there have been several accidents involving drones, ranging from minor injuries to property damage. While these incidents are relatively rare, they do underscore the need for caution when operating a drone.

To minimize the risk of an accident, it is important to follow all safety guidelines and to avoid flying in areas where there is a potential for collision. With proper care and attention, drones can be enjoyed safely by everyone.

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