More than 100,000 drone operators have obtained a Remote Pilot Certificate to fly a drone for commercial and recreational purposes since the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) small drone rule took effect on Aug. 29, 2016. But while the purpose of that rule was to protect larger aircraft from the hazards of drones flying in their airspace, little was known about might happen when a wayward drone collides with a person or group of people.
To understand the personal-injury risks drones pose to people on the ground, the FAA assembled a consortium of university, industry, and government researchers to study the risks.
The consortium, dubbed the Alliance for System Safety of UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) through Research Excellence (ASSURE), is comprised of researchers from 23 leading research institutions, including the University of Alabama-Huntsville; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; Mississippi State University; and the University of Kansas. The group also includes 100 industry and government research partners.
Starting in September 2015, the researchers have reviewed techniques used to assess blunt force trauma, penetration injuries, and lacerations – the most significant threats drones pose to people on the ground. The team classified drone collision severity by identifying drone features that pose the biggest injury risks, such as unprotected rotors.
The researchers found that blunt force trauma was the most significant contributor in fatal drone-human crashes, followed by lacerations from the blades, and penetration injuries, which are difficult to apply consistently as a standard.
The consortium also identified the lithium-ion batteries that power drones as posing a safety risk and called for establishing an appropriate safety standard. Lithium-ion batteries contain powerful, rechargeable lithium cells that can overheat, catch fire, and explode if damaged, used improperly, or defectively manufactured.
Once the studies were complete, experts from NASA, the Department of Defense, FAA, and other institutions peer reviewed the findings. The research is being used to inform drone safety rules and regulations.
The ASSURE consortium also recommended continued research to refine the metrics it developed.