Drone Vs. Airplane? Who Will Win? Science Knows.

Ignore the article, watch the video at the top of the page. The article is about some idiot, likely not even a hacker, who bought a drone somewhere and nearly rammed it into a plane. He managed this with concentrated idiocy, intention was not involved. While these idiots are working hard to get our cool toys taken away, researchers elsewhere are answering the question of exactly how much threat a drone poses to an airplane.

droneexplode_thumbAirplanes are apparently armored to withstand a strike from an 8lb bird. However, even if in a similar weight class, a drone is not constructed of the same stuff. To understand if this mattered, step one was to exactly model a DJI Phantom and then digitally launch it at various sections of a very expensive airplane.

The next step, apparently, was to put a drone into an air cannon and launch it at an aluminum sheet. The drone explodes quite dramatically. Some people have the best jobs.

The study is still ongoing, but from the little clips seen; the drone loses. Along with the rest of us.

Perhaps the larger problem to think about right now is how to establish if a “drone” has actually been involved in an incident with a passenger aircraft. It seems there are a lot of instances where that claim is dubious.

46 thoughts on “Drone Vs. Airplane? Who Will Win? Science Knows.

    1. not unless it is in a place where the hole allows air to enter and over pressurise the cabin, a few planes have been brought down by comparatively small holes that way.

      jet engines are rated for bird strikes with at least twice the mass of a phantom, 5 kg or more.

      1. Indeed, but it also happens that these bird are flesh and bones and feather…
        No Li-Ion bomb, no metal parts, no carbon fiber, no fancy titanium custom gizmos !
        Ask the train authoroty wha happens when you fire chicken to a windshield with an aircraft engine certification gun… but slightly forget to reheat the pultry and send it frozen ?
        Not to blame train people, I simply haven’t heard of such a thing yet on aircraft engine :D I doubt it would have appreciated

        1. That is a very good joke, but also a myth. Given the proximity to idiots, roads, and other possible debris, they test train windscreens by firing lumps of pointy metal at them. A frozen chicken would shatter long before the impact speed was sufficient to penetrate the window.

          1. The story may be a myth but the basic concept is true, and applicable to drones.
            Mythbusters episode 14 “The thawed chicken shattered about 2-3 panes on impact. The frozen chicken broke straight through all twelve”
            Note it is also the same principle as armor piercing bullets vs standard ones.

      2. While being rated for them, a strike will most likely cause the engine to be a total write-off, and let me tell you, they’re not cheap…
        A crumpled sheet of metal on a leading edge or fuselage can usually be repaired relatively cheap and the plane will not loose certification, but the engine is unlikely to be allowed to fly again.

        Also, a drone will contain metal parts (namely at least the motors) which birds don’t, those will cause a lot of damage to the turbofan and if it gets into the core, completely destroy it…

        1. The AA flight 191 engine was still operating. It was a structural failure of the pylon mount that ended with tearing loose the hydraulics supporting the leading edge lift enhancing slats. Unlike most other aircraft the DC-10 did not have a mechanism in place to prevent that from allowing the slats to retract due to the failure and, more importantly, asymmetric retraction, which is what was the primary cause of the crash. In simulator tests many pilots were able to recover the flight if they were informed what happened the the slats on the engine loss wing of the plane.

          The structural failure was caused by applying the entire weight of the engine with the pylon as a prybar to a piece of structure that should not ever carry moment loads due to mechanics short-cutting the engine removal procedure.

          Had Douglas done their hydraulics correctly the plane would have been fine even with the engine torn loose and loss of hydraulics. Either lock the slats or retract the other side with a warning about slat retraction.

          There aren’t many drones large enough to tear an engine loose. However, a lot have been taken down by poor maintenance. Alaska Air 261, in which maintenance wasn’t bothered to actually grease a jack screw and made up their own process for checking, for another example.

      1. I saw a TV program once about the development and testing of the 777 and the showed bolts being projected into the running engines to test their ability to cope with the failure. Not only are these engines well-designed to deal with damage but the aircraft can make emergency landings with one engine out.

  1. wow so only ‘hackers’ are allowed to use drones now?
    for some serious purpose I presume, some important and complex research rather than just for playing with?
    is that an exception category on the application for a drone pilot license? ‘are you a hacker? y/n’
    intention was not involved but this non hacker idiot was working hard?

    if you fly these things where they don’t annoy anyone else then there is nothing to stop you

  2. [quote] To understand if this mattered, step one was to exactly model a DJI Phantom and then digitally launch it at various sections of a very expensive airplane.[/quote]

    Apparently real DJI Phantoms were too expensive to launch at their real plane.

    1. I’m sure their final testing will involve launching some real drones into real planes. But if you want to repeat the tests a couple thousand times with different parameters, a computer simulation is a good place to start.

    2. Use cheap simulations to see what could be a problem and what’s fine -> then burn the budget launching cheap drones at pieces of a plane…
      Mind you, at some point they will have to test an engine ingestion. That will be stupidly expensive, millions of $$$ just in destroyed hardware…

      1. Sorry I keep busting open new comments, but this stuff is interesting to me.
        One would think that a large bird, or any animal would react to being slammed into something hard very differently than a drone which is made of not flesh, but much harder and brittle material like plastic and carbon fiber.

        Flesh has a lot of water content and is heavy. It would also tend to want to stay attached to itself. It would have a tendency to spread the impact force out over a wider area until bones and things pushed through. It would probably be a like a big, wet bean-bag more or less. I could see that being destructive in a blunt force kind of way. if someone threw a pillow at you, it wouldn’t hurt. But take one and soak it in water till its heavy and its a different story. In an engine, it would get shredded, but raw, whole meat has a lot of connective tissue that would want to wrap around turbine blades and such. But they test for that and the engines can take a bird or two within reason, whole flocks and you get hero stories of airline captains and movies with Tom Hanks playing the lead role. (thankfully that and some soaked passengers was all we got!)

        Now a drone with all its brittle plastic and carbon fiber would probably look like the lower picture in the article, where all the bits would basically explode into a lot of smaller pieces. But being harder material, the likelihood of penetration into the skin of a aircraft might be more likely. But it seems they tend to explode into smaller pieces that don’t have enough mass to do much. A drone on it’s own is pretty light weight and that weight is spread out through the entire craft. The metal motors would likely do the most damage. Also, in an engine, the materials would likely disintegrate. The only real “connective tissue” would be wiring. Wire is actually probably easier to rip and tear than flesh. Again, the motors would be the real danger.

        As for lithium batteries. They do explode or burn under certain conditions, but they don’t “detonate” like high explosives. If one got forced into the skin of an aircraft during impact, and caught fire inside the plane, bad things could result, but the packs are so soft, the would likely bounce off (at least that’s what I’ve seen via my own experience with crashes with the house and various things, we all have to learn somehow!). In an engine, Probably not as bad because the engines are designed to burn fuel and withstand extreme forces anyway. I mean, they suck down whole frozen chickens and turkeys without much fuss.

        But if someone is flying a drone around at 4600′ in busy airspace, they need to have the book dropped on their head from 4600′!!! This is why we can’t have nice things….

    1. No, not if you fire the drone at the piece of airplane at a speed that accounts for the closing velocity you would see in a flight scenario between the two craft…. I hated the mythbusters, and still hate the mythbusters. but they did do a story on what happens when two vehicles collide at speed. the speed of impact is NOT doubled. The impact is shared evenly between the two objects.

      1. The mythbusters’ test was flawed: collision between two (deformable) cars at a relative velocity of 100 mph was compared to a collision with a (pretty much non-deformable) wall at 100 mph. No wonder they got different results.

        1. Actually they launched 2 cars into the wall, one at 50mph and one at 100mph, as a reference and compared the damage of these 2 cars to the damage of 2 cars crashing head-on each going 50mph. The point is that a solid concrete wall is much sturdier than a car and therefore most of the collision force will be absorbed by the car through deformation, while with 2 cars colliding the force will be absorbed by both cars. Therefore, a single car hitting a wall with a force x will absorb a force of almost x, while 2 (identical) cars hitting each other head on with a force of 2x will each absorb a force of x

          1. They also have a tendency to “Twist” – sending the shock waves through the car’s unibody superstructure at different angles. Most of the head on car crashes offset and skip at an angle if they are at high speed. But more to the point – I had a close friend who was a mechanic at Kalitta Flying Services in Ypsilanti, Michigan – they left a wood plank in the intake of one of the jet engines after doing an inspection, powered up the engine – and “plank tested” it. The engine sucked the wood plank through like a wood chipper – didn’t miss a beat. They also did x-ray testing on it after that – no damage. So I need to believe that the one piece impeller on these engines are a lot stronger then they lead people to believe. I know they throw frozen birds into them to test, or used to.

  3. Regardless of who might “win” a collision:
    Consider an airplane, let’s say a 737 or A320. Consider the last landing approach phase. Consider a drone collision, maybe with one of the main engines. And now consider yourself inside that very airplane.
    Does it feel comfortable? Is this a situation you would ever want to experience?

    Still not convinced?
    Grok this:
    After an emergency landing evacuation procedures will take over. The slide jump might be fun, but you will have to leave your notebook behind.

    Oh, you don’t have a notebook, so wtf, and your smartphone enables you to post dramatic pics immediately, right?
    The airplane still needs repair. It will stay on ground which is really, really expensive. Its next flight is to be cancelled, so are others due to the missed time windows (emergency = all runways closed down). All costs sum up, making air traffic security even ore expensive. So there’s a lot of unhappy people losing a lot of money thanks to one single bloke without a sense of responsability. Or blokess, to be pc.

    This situation should be built into FSims, just to get a feeling for it.

  4. I used to be a real “quad copter” fan, even building my own devices. Yes, I had insurance, yes, I only flew where no danger for anyone could arise. However, it were Youtube videos of “idiots” (quoting a technical term from the author of this article) who would get millions of clicks for their “speed chase” through city streets, only 1-2m over peoples’ heads and almost NO critics from the “community” would put a halt to these “heroes”.
    That made me quit that hobby. I did not want to and do not want to be counted among those “dronidiots”. These things are way too often used to film aircrafts landing (here in Europe at least), flown over cities, flown over concert crowds.

    Yes, there are many positive uses for these machines – no doubt! But, sorry, although having been a fan myself, I changed perspective and now loudly vote for strict controls, limitations of use to people with a sane mind, maybe even some kind of “drone license”. Call me an asshole, I can live better with that than with a fast turning copter blade in one of my eyes.

    As for the aircraft vs. drone: Even if it may be unlikely, but with the LiPo exploding quite near to the gas tanks I am *not* comfortable with the statement that the aircraft wins.

    1. So you don’t fly, but the idiots will still fly. Just like I don’t speed, but people still speed. and you can ticket and fine and jail them and they will still speed.

      Laws like you want only keep good people good. They don’t do squat to criminals who will still be criminals….

      You could still fly while educating people and setting a good example and drown out those people that do break the law while pointing out that there is a difference. But no, you jump on the sky is falling bandwagon and fuel the “ban the sun, because its hot and stuff” crowd. Ugh….

        1. So the majority of people, who are good hearted individuals who care about their fellow man are reminded what the majority of people would like to see out of society and then as a legal document that would spell out the punishment for offending those laws. It also sets the stage for the Police to protect those laws by giving them a guideline to follow in prevention of said laws being broken. Something that doesn’t happen as much do to the limit of police to be everywhere at once, but sadly that is changing for the worse IMHO. Because even if we had a nanny state, where the police we like gods and could see everything real time. The bad guys would still do bad things and good men would pay the price disproportionately for minor transgressions. In other words, zero tolerance law enforcement doesn’t work. I think you can understand that if laws were enforced with such rigidity that society couldn’t function short of making everyone an expert of every law on the books and DA’s would probably go insane. Not possible and in fact it was never meant to be like that, unless living under a totalitarian regime is your thing…

          Bad people will STILL do bad things and laws will only work to keep good people in line. SO now we rely on the punishment side of the laws to try to slap some since into those that would break them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    1. A few potential reasons.

      Phantoms are cheap, and so beginners are more likely to screw up with them. If you’ve paid $2000+ for some Tarot 1500 and an SLR, you have probably trained enough not to hit a plane.

      Phantoms are common, so by simple probability they are more likely to do X. In this case, X would be hitting a plane.

      Phantoms (phanta?) are easy to throw at a wall. It’s more expensive and/or harder to obtain a big hex and test that.

      That being said, you’re probably right. If I were they I’d have tested both, though perhaps with fake motors, a brick instead of an SLR, etc. to keep costs down.

      1. I’d argue that the drones most likely to be a problem are going to be the larger one from more dedicated hobbyists, or possibly people shooting video to get views on YouTube, etc, in order to make money.

        “If you’ve paid $2000+ for some Tarot 1500 and an SLR, you have probably trained enough not to hit a plane.”

        And yet people crash their much more expensive cars all the time in the process of reckless hooning. Often they’re even experienced drivers. (Case in point, the crash that killed Paul Walker. Speeding recklessly on unsuited roads resulted in two deaths and the loss of a very expensive Porsche Carrera GT.)

        It’d probably be fairly cheap to build a mockup of a big hexacopter. It can be ugly, as long as the structural integrity and mass are similar. They could probably get by with motors that wouldn’t quite get such a hexacopter off the ground, as long as they can get the rotors turning at a respectable clip. A dumb circuit board that just runs the motors off the battery ought to be good enough, and a busted old camera would suffice. Propel the model down a rail or guide wire at high speed, and bob’s your uncle.

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