To fly your drone over people you need a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which you will only receive if you can, among other things, prove that your drone operation is safe for the people on the ground. What happens if a drone does come down from the skies? Or more specifically, what happens when a DJI Phantom or Mavic Pro crashes on your head? An 18-month-long study from the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) has tried to answer this question.
What happens when a DJI Phantom or Mavic Pro crashes on your head?
The extensive Phase II Ground Collision study from ASSURE was led by the University of Alabama, Huntsville and the Mississippi State University, The National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University and others and investigated the possible injuries that would result from collisions between people and drones.
Apart from researching the potential injuries resulting from a drone crash, the researcher also aimed to develop a safety testing methodology and provide the FAA with recommendations. According to Popular Mechanics, this is the only comprehensive science-based study of its kind in the world.
The results of the study may actually surprise you. Even though the videos look quite dramatic, ASSURE’s researchers found that the small, plastic drones were very flexible with a lot of elasticity. Drones such as the DJI Phantom and Mavic Pro actually absorb a significant amount of impact energy, says David Arterburn, the principal investigator of ASSURE. He added:
“A common misconception is that every drone is like a rock so when it hits you, it’s going to hurt you like a rock.”
The ASSURE study was a very comprehensive study. 512 impact tests were conducted using 16 different types of unmanned aircraft, including popular consumer drones such as the DJI Phantom and Mavic Pro. The researchers also used various kinds of payloads (batteries, woodblocks) with weights ranging from 0.71 to 13.2 lbs. And, also included full anthropomorphic and simplified head-and-neck-only impact tests as well as Post Mortem Human Surrogate (cadaver) impact test.
One of the goals of ASSURE is to establish a proven methodology that can also be used to test commercial drone flights and to help establish global safety standards.
The most common injuries that resulted from drones, such as the DJI Phantom and Mavic Pro crashing into people’s heads were lacerations, cuts, and bruises. The severity of possible concussions was harder to assess because of the inexact science according to Arterburn. In one case there was serious damage to the eye and ASSURE acknowledges that the fast-spinning props on a quadcopter area likely to result in ocular injuries. One of the recommendations from ASSURE is to use propeller guards.
ASSURE’s Executive Director, Stephen P. Luxion said that the team did everything possible to make sure that their testing was controlled, consistent and based on scientific methods.
“We still had a lot of variability,” Luxion acknowledged. “Even a quarter-inch offset in a collision sequence could result in a significant reduction in injury to the person.”
According to Arterburn, it’s not only the general public who is interested in learning more about the risk of injury when drones and humans collide, but drone makers, themselves were also positively starving for a detailed study.
“Companies are really responding to the fact that they now have clear standards and methodology for testing that can lead to actionable design changes they can make to improve the safety of their products for the public.”
The reason is clear as many of the money-making drone services such as package, food, or medical deliveries by drone, will take place in urban and suburban environments and will likely involve flying over people, something that is not allowed by the FAA unless you have a waiver.
Drone design changes as a result of ASSURE findings
Apparently, the results from ASSURE’s studies are already having an impact on drone design. Previously speed and payload were top priorities when designing unmanned aircraft, now the emphasis has shifted to safety.
“[Drone] makers can now evaluate their designs against ASSURE data,” Arterburn says. “That’s a metric they’ve never had before… when you get to the 8 to 10 pound [weight] range, mass and design elasticity start to combine to make more serious injuries.”
One of the main results of the ASSURE study was that payloads tend to have a stiffer construction with increased mass, which can result in more serious injury.
Many payloads do not have the elasticity that the vehicles have because of their construction,” Arterburn says. “Both construction and mass have a role in defining injury potential.”
For instance, a battery that is carried outside of the drone body poses more risk of injury than when it is enclosed within the body of the drone.
It seems likely that regulations will be developed that govern the type of payloads as well as the configurations that delivery drones can carry. Parachute safety systems, such as the ones from ParaZero and Indemnis, may reduce the risk significantly but a lot more testing of these systems in controlled environments is required.
ASSURE’s study on the potential injuries that may occur when a DJI Phantom or Mavic Pro crashes into your head are one of the first but important steps of making safe delivery services by drone a reality.
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