Researchers at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering say drones as small as 8 pounds will have “devastating” effects if sucked into the turbofan engines of commercial aircrafts.
Computer-simulated tests showed an 8-pound drone would rip apart the fan blades of a a 9-foot diameter turbofan engine during take-off in less than 1/200th of a second. Furthermore, the tests discovered that drone debris thrashing about inside the engine could reach speeds 715 miles per hour and could lead to catastrophic engine failure.
“Because the damage is spread to a large section of the engine, it is unlikely that it will be able to maintain thrust,” says Javid Bayandor, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and director of the university’s Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids (CRASH) Laboratory.
Bayandor and team started three years ago researching the impact of bird-strikes on commercial aircraft engines. However, their research switched to drones as news accounts surfaced of pilots spotting drones in commercial airspace. They’re now pushing for changes in how commercial aircraft engines are designed to prevent a potential disaster if a drone is sucked into a plane’s engine.
“Because of the unprecedented damage a small or even micro unmanned aircraft systems can inflict on a passenger aircraft, pilots cannot risk flying in the same airspace where there are drones,” says Bayandor. “While strict regulations are already in place to isolate drones from operations in controlled airspace, their enforcement have proven challenging, due to the anonymity of drone users.”
Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering created computer animes of what would happen if a drone were pulled into a commercial airliner’s engine.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), drone sightings will more than quadruple in 2015. The FAA says there have been more than 650 reports this year through Aug. 9 by pilots of drones flying near manned aircraft. There were 238 reported drone sightings in all of 2014.
Chesley B. Sullenberger, captain of the US Airways Flight 1549 that made an unpowered emergency landing in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009, has also said drones pose serious danger to commercial airliners.
“We’ve seen what a six-pound or an eight-pound bird can do to bring down an airplane,” Sullenberger said on “Face the Nation,” referencing the cause of the Miracle on the Hudson. “Imagine what a device containing hard parts like batteries and motors can do that might weigh 25 or possibly up to 55 pounds to bring down an airplane. It’s not a matter of if it will happen. It’s a matter of when it will happen.”
Sullenberger also says that because drones continue to fall in price and are easy to get, people will “do stupid, reckless, dangerous things with abandon.”
“I’m heartened that the aviation and the legal authorities have raised the penalties for doing these things,” he says. “Unfortunately, the essential element that’s still missing is the certainty of prosecution because it’s been difficult to catch them in the act. This must stop.”
The US government will soon require drone registration with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to crack down on reckless flying. The DOT, which supervises the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), still needs to figure out the specifics of, including which drones will be included, how users will register the devices, and whether the policy will apply to devices that have already been sold. The DOT hopes to have the registration process up and running by Christmas 2015.