If a recent report is to be believed, the 137 crew and passengers of British Airways flight 727 on 17 April were among the unluckiest people on the planet. It appears their Airbus A320 collided with a small drone on approach to London Heathrow airport from Geneva. The exact circumstances remain under investigation.
A study released by George Mason University in March estimated the odds of a toy drone collision with a manned aircraft as one in 1.87 million flight hours.
The point of the study was to undermine the safety concerns that prompted the US Federal Aviation Administration to act last December – very late, some might suggest – to register the estimated 1 million toy unmanned air vehicles already purchased in the USA.
Aviation safety regulators and aircraft insurers can tell you precisely how much a damage an 3.6kg (8lb) Canada goose will cause to an aircraft.
No such data is available on UAV impacts, because nobody has performed an impact test. But extrapolating from the FAA’s bird collision data, Texas engineering firm Aero Kinetics released a study last November. A drone ingested by the fan should cause “catastrophic failure” of a turbine engine, this concluded.
The most substantial danger UAVs present to the aviation industry today is not the risk of impact, but the uncertainty. UAV collision studies with aircraft and turbine engines need to be funded immediately.