Toy Drones Could Take Down Passenger Planes

A commercial airline has had a near hit with a drone in France.

The drone came within five metres (16 feet) of the aircraft. The Air France jet was on approach to land at a height of 1,600 metres (~5250 feet) when the pilot saw the drone off to the left side of the plane. 150 people were on the plane.

In 2012, France started regulating recreational drones, banning their use over populated areas or above 150 metres and requiring the ground based pilot to keep the craft in eye sight.

This is the closest encounter yet between a drone and a civil airliner according to Bloomberg. Despite drones being banned from flying near airports, it hasn’t deterred some people. Britain recorded 23 incidents between April 11 and October 4 last year, with seven close calls in December alone.

In the United States you can fly your drone no higher than 400 feet (121 metres) but only if you are at least five miles (eight kilometres) away from an airport and the drone is in sight at all times.

Aero Kinetics, an aerospace and defense firm, say that people don’t understand how dangerous the toy drones can be. A study it conducted examined what would happen when a collision occurs between a drone and a manned aircraft.

The results of the study showed that: “A drone strike to the windshield and engine ingestion of a commercial airliner would cause damage and economic losses, while a head-on rotorcraft drone strike would cause significant damage and be non-survivable”. It concluded: “Toy drones pose a catastrophic threat to manned rotorcraft, posing a risk to the pilots, passengers and bystanders on the ground if the aircraft were to crash.”

The company also compared the potential damage a drone would do in comparison to a bird strike. Bird strikes cause catastrophic damage to planes, as the world saw when US Airways Flight 1549 was forced to land in the Hudson River in New York after its engines were compromised.

Greg Lam Pak Ng / Flickr
In short, the risk posed by toy drones is more costly and dangerous than birds in a plane strike.

The Economist says anything that weighs around 100 kilograms (or a couple of hundred pounds) or less is in danger if it comes too close to a running jet engine. A drone is obviously in that category and could easily be sucked into the engine if flying too close.

It looks more and more likely airports would need to invest in the SkyWall 100. It’s a bazooka that takes down drones 100 metres away by firing a net at them. Rather than just letting them crash to the ground, it politely deploys a parachute so they aren’t too damaged.