Despite dire predictions from the Federal Aviation Administration that the nation’s air traffic is at peril from unmanned aerial vehicles, a new study claims that the chances of a drone damaging a passenger plane are fairly slim.
“Contrary to sensational media headlines, the skies are crowded not by drones, but by fowl,” wrote researchers from George Mason University, citing America’s 10 billion birds.
The most famous "bird vs. plane" incident happened in 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 suffered a catastrophic "wildlife strike" to its jet engines by a flock of Canada geese, resulting in the “Miracle on the Hudson” when the pilot made an emergency landing in New York City’s Hudson River.
In that instance, the geese in a flock weighed an average of 18 pounds each — but recreational drones average around 4.5 pounds.
“Aircraft collide with birds many thousands of times per year, [but] only a tiny fraction of those collisions result in damage to the aircraft, much less human injuries or deaths,” wrote the study’s authors, Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond.
To determine the risk of collision by a drone, the researchers used revised methodology that weighed the risk of plane collision versus the risk of that collision being fatal.
"We further estimate that 6.12 x 10−8 collisions that cause an injury or fatality to passengers on board an aircraft will occur every 100,000 hours of 2kg UAS flight time, or once every 187 million years of operation," concluded the researchers.
“We believe the risk of drones to public safety to be overstated,” agreed Frank Schroth, editor-in-chief of DroneLife.com.
“Technology will, over time, help to mitigate risk and control aberrant flights,” he told NBC News, citing the example of a new drone with “autonomous sense-and-avoid capabilities.” Other advancements include geo-fencing, which Schroth described as “the setting of a virtual boundary around a location [such as an airport] and preventing entry, regardless of whether an operator wants it to.”
Michael Huerta, administrator of the FAA, addressed a drone panel at South by Southwest in Austin on Monday, saying “We are not your father’s FAA.” He assured tech companies and innovators that “the path in front of us will continue to be paved with the same kind of partnerships that have taken us to where we are today. The safe integration of unmanned aircraft is a goal that we’re committed to pursuing together.”