DJI demands drone strike research, video be withdrawn

By Patrick C. Miller | October 22, 2018

The University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) has amended a blog post and video about its research on the effects of drone- and bird-strike damage to manned aircraft after DJI Technology Inc. objected to an experiment showing one of its DJI Phantoms striking an aircraft wing.

A letter issued last Friday from Brendan Schulman, DJI vice president of policy and legal affairs, to URDI said, “…your misleading video and incendiary blog post seem designed to generate paid research work for UDRI at the expense of the reputation of drone technology broadly, and DJI's products specifically.”

DJI took exception to a video of a 2.1-pound DJI Phantom 2 striking the leading edge of the wing on a Mooney M20 single-engine light aircraft at 238 mph. The drone is shown punching a hole in and entering the wing where it damaged the main spar. For comparison, researchers fired a gel bird of about the same weight into the aircraft’s wing, which caused more exterior damage without damaging the main spar.

“We wanted to help the aviation community and the drone industry understand the dangers that even recreational drones can pose to manned aircraft before a significant event occurs,” said Kevin Poormon, leader of the UDRI Impact Physics group. “But there is little to no data about the type of damage UAVs can do, and the information that is available has come only from modeling and simulations.”

NBC, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, Wired and Aviation International News were among the media outlets that carried stories based on URDI’s research results and video. Schulman’s letter from DJI demanded that URDI withdraw its research, take the video out of circulation and issue “a corrective statement to the public and to all of the media outlets you have appeared in,” acknowledging that the test configuration was invalid.

DJI’s letter said UDRI’s blog post and video “created a collision scenario between a drone and an airplane wing that is simply inconceivable in real life.” At an altitude where the Mooney airplane and the DJI drone would likely collide, Schulman said the manned aircraft’s speed would probably be 81 to 101 mph, while the drone’s maximum airspeed is 33.5 mph—generating less than one-fourth of the collision energy. He also contended that the video is contrary to Federal Aviation Administration crash test parameters.

Last Friday, UDRI edited its blog post in response to Schulman’s letter to indicate that its test was intended to “mimic a midair collision of a drone and a commercial transport aircraft at 238 miles per hour.” It also added a paragraph to the blog post which said:  

“Poormon, whose group routinely performs sponsored bird-strike testing of aircraft structures—such as wings, windscreens and engines—presented test results and video of the drone shot at the fourth annual Unmanned Systems Academic Summit, held in August at Sinclair College’s Conference Center and its National UAS Training and Certification Center in Dayton.”

On Monday UDRI issued a statement via Twitter which said: “The research performed by the University of Dayton Research Institute was a comparative study between a bird strike and a drone strike on an aircraft wing, using a drone similar in weight to many hobby drones and a wing selected to represent a leading edge structure of a commercial transport aircraft. The drone and gel bird were the same weight and were launched at rates designed to reflect the relative combined speed of a fully intact drone traveling toward a commercial transport aircraft moving at a high approach speed. Our news release has been amended to reflect this. There are currently no FAA defined collision test parameters for drone strike testing.

“We plan to perform additional tests using varying drone weights and different structures as targets, and we would welcome the opportunity to partner with members of the manned and unmanned aviation communities in future testing.”

A spokesperson for UDRI said Monday that the description of the YouTube video to which DJI objected has also been edited for clarification.