Study: Small consumer drones unlikely to cause head injury

Risks of a head injury are greater if a drone falls on a person than if it runs into them flying.

Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — The small drones flooding the commercial market are unlikely to cause severe head injuries if they fall out of the sky and strike people, a new study finds.

The results are similar to findings earlier this year by researchers associated with the Federal Aviation Administration and offer more justification for opening the door to unmanned operations over crowds.

Researchers at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, the site of an FAA-sanctioned drone testing facility, concluded that the risks of a catastrophic head injury were less than 5 percent in an impact with a 2.6-pound unmanned vehicle, according to results published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering. Larger drones create higher risks of injury, which may limit their uses until other safety standards can be devised, the study found.

“Risk of injury was observed to increase with increasing UAS mass, and the larger models tested are not safe for operations over people in their current form,” the researchers, led by biomechanical professor Steven Rowson, said in the journal article, referring to drones as unmanned aircraft systems.

The risks of a head injury are also greater if a drone falls on a person than if it runs into them while flying, they concluded. Because the FAA defines small drones with the lowest level of oversight as weighing as much as 55 pounds, the agency may want to reclassify its guidelines to restrict the heavier ones from flying over people, the authors said.

The study focused solely on head trauma and didn’t assess the potential for rotor blades cutting the skin or other injuries.

The FAA had planned to release by the end of 2016 a preliminary outline for allowing at least some drone flights over people. Such rules are needed by multiple industries from network television news shows to drone delivery pioneers, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google.

The U.S. government temporarily put the effort on hold after law enforcement agencies objected, saying there needs to be better ways of tracking unmanned vehicles before they’re unleashed over people.

The Virginia Tech study looked at three models made by China-based SZ DJI Technology Co. The smallest was the Phantom 3, which was flown straight into a crash-test dummy’s head and also dropped on the dummy to simulate falling from the sky.

While the risks from the Phantom 3 were minimal, the potential for injury increased dramatically as drones weighed more. A DJI S1000+ model, an eight-rotor copter weighing 24 pounds had an injury risk of about 70 percent in some tests.

The FAA in April released similar results of studies it had financed. “So many people are watching these studies,” Earl Lawrence, director of FAA’s Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, said earlier this year. “FAA needs it to support our rulemaking activities, but so does every other civil aviation authority and interest groups throughout the world.”

The agency last year adopted regulations allowing routine small-drone flights for commercial purposes, but restricted them to within sight of the operator, no higher than 400 feet above ground and not directly over people.

Talk to us

More in Nation-World

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

She was a women’s rights champion who became the court’s second female justice.

US remembers 9/11 as pandemic changes tribute traditions

Trump spoke at the memorial near Shanksville. Biden attended the observance in New York.

George Floyd? Donald Trump? Hero statue nominations are in

Suggestions look considerably different from the predominantly white picks the administration chose.

John Lewis, lion of civil rights and Congress, dies at 80

He was best known for leading 600 protesters in the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

Comet streaking past Earth, providing spectacular show

NASA’s Neowise infrared space telescope discovered the comet in March.

Boeing has settled almost all Lion Air crash-death claims

The company didn’t say how much it paid the families of the people killed in the 2018 Indonesia crash.

Supreme Court: LGBT people protected from job discrimination

Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Boeing, suppliers plunge on stop-and-go 737 Max comeback

An uptick in Covid-19 cases in the U.S. has added to concerns that airlines face a prolonged recovery

Boeing goes another month without a single airliner order

Airlines are canceling thousands of flights while passengers remain too scared to fly.

Bellevue couple’s nightmare: Held in China, away from daughter

Chinese officials want the man’s father to return from the U.S. to face 20-year-old embezzling charges.

Airbus CEO warns workers it’s bleeding cash and needs cuts

Both Airbus and Boeing are preparing for job cuts as they gauge the depth of the downturn.

U.S. unsure it can meet deadline to disburse funds to tribes

The department hasn’t determined whether unique Alaska Native corporations are eligible for a share.