Could A Jet Engine Survive Sucking Up A Drone?

Could a Jet Engine Survive Sucking Up a Drone?

You can say goodbye to the quadcopter. That much is obvious. But what about aeroplanes? Passengers on commercial airlines actually have little to worry about, as IEEE Spectrum explains today.

IEEE Spectrum put the drone-airliner crash question to George Morse, founder of Failure Analysis Service Technology, a company that specialises in analysing foreign-object damage to aeroplanes. Morse hasn't dealt with any drone collisions, but he has investigated a lot of birdstrikes — a lot because it's an incredibly common problem.

The biggest hazard is when birds, or in this case drones, are sucked whole into an engine. Here's what Morse has to say to IEEE Spectrum:

The drone will hit the leading edge of the fan blades and would probably break up into small pieces. The fan blade itself is not likely to break, in Morse's view. "There's a good chance it will take the engine out at high power," says Morse, but not necessarily. "It's absolutely amazing how they will still run."...But what about the lithium-ion batteries that these little drones carry? Aren't they hard enough to create real problems for a turbofan engine? "Ice can be hard, too," says Morse. And as for the worry about the volatile material from a battery ending up in the combustion chamber: "The engine will probably burn it up."

Even if the drone does take out an engine, the plane is not going to fall out of the sky. Modern airliners are designed to fly even with one engine down. (They usually have two or four.) In cases where birds have taken down planes, such as the US Airways flight that emergency landed on the Hudson in 2009, a whole flock of birds took out all the engines. Quadcopters at least don't fly around in huge swarms — well, as least not yet.

But today's drone collision question is a fascinating window into the world of hardcore engine testing. Birdstrikes are a serious enough problem that chickens are sacrificed to the cause. A chicken gun shoots real or simulated birds made of gelatin into engines — often the last step in extensive engine testing process. Here's Mythbusters shooting some frozen and thawed chickens out of a gun:

But even if drones are unlikely to take down an aeroplane engine, they can still cause expensive damage and delayed flights. And they pose a bigger hazard to smaller planes with smaller engines that may not be able to handle several pounds of plastic or metal. This isn't an idle problem either. The number of drone sightings by pilots has been creeping up, with 193 sightings in a period of less than a year. Buckle up, guys. [IEEE Spectrum]

Picture: Photoncatcher/Shutterstock



    As a pilot who flies light aircraft, I am quite worried about the damage that a quadcopter would do to a light aircraft on approach or takeoff, if you have seen the damage a bird strike can do, a drone would probably be on par.

    I would hate to cop a drone through my windscreen at 80 knots on final.

      While flying with my old man, we took a cockatoo on the top of the nose while making some low passes as part of a country airshow. Made one hell of a mess with bits of bird all up the windscreen, partially obscuring the view. Fortunately we were in a twin, not a single, so it didn't go near an engine. Not sure how it would have looked if we replaced the bird with a drone, but I'll go out on a limb and say 'not pretty'!

    The drones are cheap and getting cheaper. In sufficient quantities, they can take out a jet, let alone a turboprop or smaller craft.

    There need to be drone air traffic rules and drone air traffic control.

      They are already illegal to fly around airports and I'm pretty sure there are restrictions on how high they can go.

      I've read that a lot of big airports keep falcons or similar to kill/scare off other birds.

        That's interesting. I wonder how they train the falcons to keep away from the planes though.

        Falcon drones (mini fighter planes) would work better :) .

          They probably have a falconer on hand, I'm pretty sure they can call the birds.

    I sit and watch thousands of white cattle egrets come home to roost near my house every day, they have about a 1m wingspan and weigh around half a kilo. THOUSANDS.

    I also have a small plastic quadcopter that is about 30cm across and weighs about a kilo all up. I fly it every so often (maybe once a month) and i know that it is very, very stupid to fly it near an airport.

    I know which of these two flying things are more likely to hit an aircraft, the THOUSANDS of dumb birds flying every day, or my one drone flying for 15min per month, usually under 100m high and never near an airport.

    Just put a jail term and massive fines for flying near an airport, and max altitude of 400m for drones. Job done.

    If the drones are autonomous, there will have to be a set of regulated paths they can take, similar to airliners with SIDS and STARS, but more rigid. I was flying at Wollongong airfield a few moths ago, and somebody was fooling round with a quadcopter in the paddock/park just on approach. Was thinking about going around, but it was well enough out of the way. The other thing is I bet those guys werent on the radio listening to calls from pilots, which would have helped me scream at them!

      My thoughts exactly. Why not create one flight server which would schedule and supervise the flights along rigid routes, similar to an multiprocess OS managing processes? That would also help the drone operators ensure that their possessions are safe.

      Last edited 16/03/15 2:54 pm

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now