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Was it a Drone? Mystery Plane Collision Causes Concern, Skepticism

Drone Mid Air Wing2

The proliferation of quadcopter use has long come with concerns about errant UAVs colliding with flying airplanes, and over the past few months near-miss accounts of this type of incident have started to become more commonplace. The latest of these reports, filed just a few days ago, offers just as much unease as the rest — and similarly, just as much uncertainty on the involvement of a flying drone.

Drone-Mid-Air-Wing1The incident, reported by SUAS News, involves a twin-propellor Piper Apache with visible damage on the leading edge of what appears to be the tail in photos. The damage, said by the pilot to have come from a drone, is reported to have occurred on August 27 while flying about 30 miles southwest of Chicago, Illinois, at 2,500′ above Lewis University — a height that small quadcopters can reach, but is far above the 500′ FAA-mandated ceiling for drone use. Indentations and various markings accompany a few-inches-long slashing break of the wing edge in the photos.

At its current stage, the reports of the incident are still speculative; SUAS News treats the situation with some skepticism, noting that the only confirmed airplane/drone collision occurred in 2011 in Afghanistan. However, editor Patrick Egan explained to Make: that the report is being examined carefully. “I hear that a investigation is taking place on a high level, including scientific tests to look for organic matter (bird strike). Some are concerned that all we have is the pilot’s account of hearing a thud. He did not report seeing a drone.”

Further reports back up the involvement of a bird rather than a drone.

The drone claim has become much more commonplace during the past few months, through various reports of airplane near-misses. One effects artist even caused a scare around the internet and with prospective flyers with a realistic CGI-rendered video of a white quadcopter tearing into the wing of a Southwest Airlines airplane. (That video resulted in an internal note from Southwest to its employees to quell concerns of its validity.) While none of the possible collisions have been proven as of yet, they nonetheless are causing many to want increased regulation on the use of these machines.

But there are concerns by many in the drone community that these concerns are overblown. Rich Hanson, the Academy of Model Aeronautics’ Government and Regulatory Affairs Representative, recently stated to The Hill that near misses are much too loosely defined. “It is irresponsible for the FAA to assert in the media that ‘close calls’ happened when the agency admits that they don’t have a clear regulatory definition of what that means,” his statement said.

Others feel that a drone collision, or even a drone entering a jet engine, would be less damaging than what many fear. In March of this year, IEEE Spectrum posted a discussion it had with foreign-object damage expert George Morse, where he compared the likely results of an engine ingesting a drone to that of the somewhat common bird encounter — manageable with lower amounts of damage at lower power levels, but more so when at full power.

Regardless, it’s the community’s responsibility to fly safely and respect the rules and regulations. Whether a store-bought, plastic-shelled quadcopter or a fully custom, garage-built octocopter, these machines do pack considerable power, and occasionally considerable heft, into a compact package. Observing the flight ceilings and no-fly zones will help prevent an actual encounter of this sort from happening. And that’s very important, because if or when a collision incident ever does happen, the regulation will likely be swift and extreme.


Mike Senese is the Executive Editor of Make: magazine. He is also a TV host, starring in various engineering and science shows for Discovery Channel, including Punkin Chunkin, How Stuff Works, and Catch It Keep It.

An avid maker, Mike spends his spare time tinkering with electronics, doing amateur woodworking, and attempting to cook the perfect pizza.

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