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News & Notes

New Research Shows What Could Happen if Drone Hits Person on Ground

Findings affect rule for drone operations over people

April 28, 2017

The impact of a Phantom 3 drone hitting a dummy is less than if that dummy was hit by wood or metal of the same weight.
UAS Ground Collision Severity Evaluation Final Report
Today, the preliminary results of a UAS ground-collision severity research that looks into the risk of drones hitting people on the ground was released. The research, which began in 2015, was conducted by Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE), which is the FAA’s designated Center of Excellence. While the research is useful for an array of applications, it directly relates to the FAA’s pending rulemaking for the operation of drones over people.

Researchers conducted crash tests, dynamic modeling, and analyses of kinetic energy, energy transfer, and crash dynamics. They reviewed techniques used to evaluate the largest threats to people on the ground: blunt force trauma, penetration injuries, and lacerations.

For these tests, researchers used a DJI Phantom 3 drone and the same dummies used for auto tests.

What they found

According to the UAS Ground Collision Severity Evaluation Final Report, the impact of a Phantom 3 drone hitting the test dummy was less than if that dummy was hit by wood or metal of the same weight. This is because multirotor drones fall at a slower rate than both wood and metal, so drones transfer less energy upon impact.

“There’s a significant difference in vehicles that are made from foam and plastic than there are made from metal,” says David Arterburn, director of the Rotorcraft Systems Engineering & Simulation Center at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, which was involved in the research. “We need to look at the material of these vehicles because UAS certainly have unique construction [compared to] to traditional materials and build techniques of manned aircraft.”

Based on the studies, the most significant threats to a person on the ground if a drone were to hit them are:
  • Blunt force trauma, which are the most likely to cause deaths.
  • Lacerations, which are the most dominant injuries in the RC community and can be prevented by attaching blade guards to multirotor drones.
  • Penetration injuries
The research team included: University of Alabama-Huntsville; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; Mississippi State University; and the University of Kansas – all of which are part of ASSURE.

According to a news release from the FAA, “The team recommended continued research to refine the metrics developed. The team members suggested developing a simplified test method to characterize potential injury, and validating a proposed standard and models using potential injury severity test data.”

The FAA notes that these studies do not definitively answer what happens if a drone hits a person on the ground. But this is a large stepping stone, and DJI has already released a statement, which appears to be positive, about these studies.

Read the full research report here.

So what about flights over people?
Flights over people

Wes Ryan, manager at the FAA’s Small Airplane Directorate, says drone operations over people are the "next logical step" in UAS integration.

And in order for these flights to happen, Arterburn says blade guards will be essential — those could help prevent injuries like lacerations, which are the most dominant injury in the R/C community and less deadly than blunt force trauma.

The FAA did say the data from this research will be used to support the rulemaking that will allow small UAS operations over people. However, Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA UAS Integration Office, says there is no set time frame for the rulemaking process on drone operations over people and that they are addressing concerns ― a major concern being security.

“When a time frame is established it will be posted on the DOT (Department of Transportation) website,” he says.

Airport airspace

Today the FAA also announced new research efforts on the detection of drones near airports. The research is to be conducted this week in conjunction with the Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW) Airport as a continuation of the FAA’s past research. The work is part of the FAA’s Pathfinder Program for UAS detection at airports, which aims to establish a set of minimum performance standards for drone detection technology.

Gryphon Sensors is the participating industry partner, testing the company’s drone detection technologies including radar and radio frequency systems. The FAA’s federal partners in this research include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, NASA, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Transportation, among others.

Both of these research initiatives show a strong investment from the FAA toward safely integrating drones into the national airspace. However, time will tell if the FAA will be able to create policies that enable industry growth reflected in the Administration’s recent aerospace forecast.
Featured image: istock.com/BluIz60