Most of the time, crashing a drone is both accidental and to the drone pilot, very upsetting. Sometimes, however, it can be helpful. Virginia Tech researchers have been smashing drones into crash heads in the name of science and safety. Crashing drones head-on and full speed at crash test dummies is allowing the researches to evaluate what risk drones pose when they hit the human body.
The testing so far has consisted of multiple aircraft of different sizes being flown at full speed into the head of a sitting crash dummy fitted with sensors to calculate impact damage. Although most drone accidents would come from overhead and thus be significantly less harmful to the victim, maximum possible damage is helpful to know. More testing will still be done by the VT team for a large data pool from which to develop conclusions.
The drones used were, from smallest to largest, a DJI Phantom 4 (3lbs), a DJI Inspire 1 (~6lbs), and a DJI S1000 (up to 24lbs). The Inspire actually survived the impact and was able to be flown afterwards, but the other two were heavily damaged. DJI has been one of the only commercial drone manufacturers that is building advanced safety technology into their aircraft. The Phantom 4 line introduced binocular cameras in front that allow the craft to automatically sense and avoid obstacles. The newer DJI Phantom 4 Pro is arguably the safest drone on shelves with its 5-way binocular obstacle sensing cameras.
Currently, drones are not allowed to be flow over people, a safety measure enforced by the FAA to ensure they are flown safely. Even professional filmmakers on closed sets are no longer allowed to fly over people after an amendment to the 333 exemption revoked the ability. Current FAA regulations are put in place to prevent damage by limiting airspace. However, these limits often frustrate hobbyists and commercial pilots alike.
Most drones available for purchase fall within weight limits to which the FAA’s regulations apply. Drones have long been placed in registration categories. Any drone under half a pound is not required to be registered, and any aircraft over 55 pounds needs special permitting. In a drone-risk classification, the FAA used this half-pound limit to categorize drones into risk levels – any drone above was in a different risk-class. In response, DJI released a white paper making a compelling case that drones up to 2.2 kilos (covering most of their consumer grade aircrafts) should be included in the low-risk weight class. The full paper download can be found here.
There are many parties involved in drone safety. Many pilots want drone airspace deregulated as much as possible to open up their flying capabilities. The FAA is designing stricter and stricter regulations to make the skies clear of hazards to people and other aircraft alike. 3rd party institutions are conducting tests to determine what the risk is. Drone manufacturers, especially DJI, is working on creating technologies that make drones themselves as safe as possible so the FAA and other regulatory agencies need not feel pressured into making imposing rules. When these groups come together, drone tech and use will grow in the safest manner possible. We will likely see more testing like Virginia Tech’s study as growth continues.