In 2016, a drone came within 200 feet of a plane that was approaching LAX. Disaster was avoided, but what if a collision had occurred?
Kevin Poormon with the University of Dayton Research Institute’s impact physics division set out to find out.
The answer he arrived at isn’t a very reassuring one. His group is able to launch things at high rates of speed, so he set out to simulate a crash using the right wing of a Mooney M20 plane, a drone (the 2.1-pound DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter), and the biggest air cannon his lab has.
The Phantom was inserted into the 40-foot cannon and released at the estimated impact speed: 238mph. The hit occurred 0.03 seconds later, and Popular Mechanics observes that though the drone was obliterated, it held together long enough to strike the wing as one object, rather than multiple fragments.
He explains that the drone traveled deep enough into the wing to damage its main weight-bearing spar, per a press release.
“If you damage the spar enough on that side, you would not, um, survive. The aircraft would crash,” he says. A simulated bird collision (he used gelatin instead of a dead bird due to the mess and “mean stink” that would result) tore a bigger hole into the wing but didn’t breach it to the same depth, or cause the same damage.
Wired notes the Mooney M20 doesn’t adhere to the same safety regulations in terms of construction as commercial jets, but Poormon says it’s close. (This drone did in 20 minutes what humans couldn’t do.)