Study identifies, shows risks of toy drones in national airspace

By Luke Geiver | November 19, 2015

Toy drones present a risk to the public and other aircraft that, until now, has never been fully understood, according to Texas-based aerospace and defense firm Aero Kinetics. Led by Hulsey Smith, CEO for Aero Kinetics, the company has released a new study titled, “The Real Consequences of Flying Toy Drones in the National Airspace System.” After six months of research, Smith said the conclusions in the study are clear. “Toy drones are not designed with aerospace standards or avionics in mind,” he said. “I believe that the general public has been lulled into believing that toy drones are safe due to the ease of operation that the toy drone manufacturers have built into their products.”

Although toy drones are easy to operate, they will cause significant damage to manned aircraft if they collide with a manned aircraft or are ingested in a turbo jet engine, according to the study. To form its analysis, the research team behind the study utilized modeling for bird strike impacts on manned aircraft. By adjusting the variables in the formula for calculating bird strike damage levels, the team input the characteristics of various small unmanned aircraft vehicles—less than 50 pounds and operated by a remote control—and recalculated the outcomes.

The study found that a rotorcraft drone strike would result in catastrophic failure for the aircraft and potentially to the pilot. A commercial airliner windshield strike would not be catastrophic but would cause economic loss and damage. A commercial airliner engine ingestion incident would result in catastrophic failure. “Make no mistake lives are at stake,” Smith said in a statement accompanying the study’s release. “This study is meant to bring the risk into perspective, and inform consumers of the dangers that exist.”

Smith said he did not like being involved in the study, but that the topic was too important to ignore. The purpose of the study is to start a conversation to educate the public and industry on the real risks of integrating toy drones into the NAS.

To mitigate the risks of toy drones operating in the NAS, Smith recommended several actions. The main effort that should be undertaken in the future is a combination of further research and expanded education. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration needs to continue its educational efforts but also expand those attempts to educate toy drone pilots. Toy drones should be equipped with ADS-B responders and certain flight zones should be set aside for hobbyists to fly without presenting risk to the NAS. “All options are on the table. To solve this problem is going to take out of the box thinking and we are going to have to embrace emerging technologies as part of the overall solutions,” he said.

The 26-page study includes a list of references, definitions of terms used, explanations of formulas used and depictions of how variables were tweaked in the formulas used to assess the risk of a drone strike incident.

Aero Kinetics services the manned and unmanned industries and has a suite of UAV multirotor offerings. The company is currently working to gain type class certification for a multirotor. The process involves using the FAA to verify the safety aspects of the UAS based on a set of preapproved and vetted variables tested and approved by the FAA. Currently, section 333 exemption holders are not required to operate a UAV that meet the safety requirements of a type class certified platform.

View the full study here