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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.

16 thoughts on “Was it a Drone? Mystery Plane Collision Causes Concern, Skepticism

  1. Eek. I will be eagerly awaiting the results of the investigation to find out if they’re able to determine what actually struck the Piper. I think drones are really neat and have a lot of fun, interesting, and valuable uses. But I’m also a pilot and the thought of one of these in the flight path of my single-engine Cessna 152 scares me plenty. I don’t think more regulation is necessarily going to help, though. Serious, thoughtful operators are going to take the time to learn about the airsplace and relevant safety issues where they want to fly, keep their little UAVs in sight, and exercise caution. It’s the careless people with no knowledge of aviation, no training, no regard for safety or privacy, and a few hundred bucks for an awesome new toy that worry me, and they’re not likely to learn or care about the very sensible regulations we already have.

  2. “Others feel that a drone collision, or even a drone entering a jet engine, would be less damaging than what many fear”.

    Until one comes through the wind screen of the Cessna 172 I fly.

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    2. If you didn’t know your Cessna 172 wind screen isn’t even bird certified, or that it has no jet engines whatsoever, maybe you shouldn’t be flying it.

      1. Even a single bird striking a jumbo jet airliner is an emergency and will cause significant damage–they are not invulnerable to them. Recall that Sullenberger’s plane went down from multiple bird ingestion.

        That doesn’t give you the right to intentionally release flocks of birds (or fly drones) into the flight path of a plane and become a hazard to pilots.

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  3. Even if you believe that the damage potential caused by a UAV impact with an aircraft is overblown (ie: the aircraft will land safely and won’t explode into a ball of flames), the damage costs for that aircraft owner will still be immense.

    The damage to the Piper Twin shown in this article will probably be at least a couple thousand dollars to repair. Damaging a commercial jet even superficially can easily mean tens of thousands of dollars or more, particularly if you include the business cost of it being out of service for the inspections and any repairs.

    1. Not even close. That damage will classify as a major repair as some of the stringers will be bent. The owner won’t get out of this for less than $5k and more likely $10k. I had the outer portion of the wing on my Piper replaced and the structural repair bill came in at $15k.

      1. That’s entirely possible. I can buy an entire replacement (salvaged) wing for my single-engine Piper Cherokee for only $1k, rather than attempting to repair/reskin it, however a Twin would definitely be a different story.

  4. Enthusiasts are always going to fight limitations, and sadly, we probably won’t have reliable data on this until someone is actually killed. I think this is going to become an issue as consumer drones become affordable, and favorite drone flight areas start overlapping more with where you’d expect to see low-flying planes, such as those used for crop-dusting, wildlife surveillance, fish management, and fire control.

  5. From the link in the article to the report on this incident: “The only confirmed RPAS-manned aircraft strike occurred in 2011 in Afghanistan.” That obviously wasn’t a civilian hobby drone.

    How many birds do you think there are in the sky at any given time vs hobby drones above 400 feet (which is supposed to be their ceiling according to the FAA)? And the problem isn’t 99.999% of “drone” flyers who are responsible and follow the ALREADY EXISTING rules along with common sense.

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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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