Drone risk in sharper focus

Researchers assessing risk

By Jim Moore

Google Earth image with the flight path of BA727 superimposed, a yellow line extending from the approximate location of the drone collision through the remainder of the flight. The Airbus A320 landed safely at Heathrow Airport, and did not require any delays for repair. Google Earth image with the flight path of BA727 superimposed, a yellow line extending from the approximate location of the drone collision through the remainder of the flight. The Airbus A320 landed safely at Heathrow Airport, and did not require any delays for repair.

If the reported drone collision with an airplane over California in January (which did not damage the Cessna 188 involved) was a nearly silent precursor, another reported drone strike over London on April 17 was a shot heard around the world.

A British Airways Airbus A320 on final approach to London’s Heathrow Airport reported striking what the crew believed to be a drone, though a post-flight inspection found no damage significant enough to delay the following flight. Had the drone hit one of the engines, rather than the nose of the airliner, it might well have ended with a failed engine and emergency landing, or possibly worse. The details of a worst-case scenario remain largely unknown.

U.S. government agencies and academic institutions are working hard to model the risk posed by drones of various sizes in a scientifically sound way, and testing traffic management and related systems designed to prevent such collisions in the first place. That work is well underway, and a technological traffic management solution was tested for the first time on a large scale April 19.

As drones proliferate virtually everywhere—a boom driven by advancing technology that puts a quadcopter in easy reach of virtually any consumer—efforts to educate those consumers have taken on a sense of urgency. Answering critical questions about risk, mitigation, and regulation has also been a priority for many in and out of government, hereand abroad, as drones proliferate.

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