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Crash testing drones for safety with Virginia Tech
What are the implications of a drone colliding with a person? Researchers are attempting to find the answers

No one likes crashing their drone. In this case, however, researchers at Virginia Tech hope deliberate collisions between drones and crash test dummies will yield useful scientific data. Ultimately, the goal is to determine what risk drones of varying weights pose when they collide with a human body.

So far, the testing has consisted of multiple aircraft of different sizes being flown – full speed – into the head of a seated crash-test dummy fitted with sensors to calculate impact damage. Although most drone accidents would likely come from overhead (and presumably be less injurious than full throttle to the temple), these tests have been designed to determine the maximum possible damage. The VT team plans continued testing in order to create a statistically significant database from which to draw evidence-based conclusions. 

The drones used were, from smallest to largest, a DJI Phantom 4 (3 lbs), a DJI Inspire 1 (~6 lbs), and a DJI S1000 (up to 24 lbs). The Inspire actually survived the impact and was able to be flown afterwards, but the other two were heavily damaged.

The purpose, of course, isn’t to see how well the drone fares – but what the implications are on the sensor-equipped dummy.

BUILT-IN SAFEGUARDS

DJI is one of the only commercial drone manufacturers that builds advanced safety technology into its aircraft. The revolutionary Phantom 4 introduced forward-facing stereoscopic cameras that allow the craft to automatically sense and avoid obstacles. The newer DJI Phantom 4 Pro is arguably the safest drone on the shelves – with five separate obstacle-sensing sensors. In theory, a user would have to deliberately override these sensors to enable a collision.

DJI's P4P, with its extensive obstacle avoidance sensors, is arguably one of the safest drones on the market
DJI’s P4P, with its extensive obstacle avoidance sensors, is arguably one of the safest drones on the market

Currently, FAA rules prohibit flying drones over people for safety reasons. Even professional filmmakers on closed sets are no longer allowed to fly over people following an amendment to the 333 exemption.

Current FAA regulations exist to ensure that airspace (which is everything from a blade of grass up) is as safe as possible. And, in theory, that’s a good thing.

However, some of the restrictions that have resulted frustrate hobbyists and professionals alike. To further complicate matters, individuals states have authority over issues of privacy and trespass, leading to additional restrictions that can make flying legally even more difficult. (TDC has an upcoming story on this very topic.)

Most drones available for purchase are categorized by the FAA based on weight. Drones under half a pound are not required to be registered, while aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds require special permits. Recently, DJI released a white paper making a compelling case that drones up to 2.2 kilos (covering most of their consumer-grade aircrafts) should be included in the low-risk weight class (which currently covers drones weighing 250 grams or less). TDC covered this extensively here.

IT’S COMPLICATED

Drone safety is a complex issue, involving a multitude of vested interests, a paucity of hard facts, and news media that tend to portray occasional sightings near fight paths as near-catastrophes.

Don’t get us wrong. The last thing we want to see is a drone flying anywhere near a manned aircraft or over people. But the current US regulations – the common-sense “Know Before You Fly” rules – are a solid set of guidelines that provide an ample buffer of safety when followed.

We welcome research like that being conducted at Virginia Tech (even though full-velocity into the temple is likely the worst-case scenario). Rigorous tests provide data. And data is much better than conjecture.

In the meantime, drone manufactures (especially DJI) continue to work on creating aircraft with as many features and redundancies as possible. Fly-aways, which were not entirely uncommon in the early days of mass-produced drones, are now pretty much a thing of the past. And, given the leap between the P4 and the P4P, it’s safe to assume this technology will continue to improve – likely reaching a stage where drones and other drones (or even manned aircraft) instantly communicate the potential for danger and autonomously correct their courses.

THE FUTURE?

We don’t have a crystal ball. But undoubtedly the best approach will be based on science instead of hype, respect the legitimate concerns of all involved – and recognize the impressive (and growing) safety technology built into quality drones.


Thinking of buying a DJI product? Nice move – they build quality products.

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