Are you worried about what happens if a drone hits a helicopter? In this article, we’ll talk about the possible consequences of such an event and how to prevent it from happening.
Even if you are an experienced pilot, understanding all of drone safety topics in one go is just not possible. An intriguing question drone pilots might have is what happens if a drone hits a helicopter.
Well, the answer to this question can’t be given in a single line. For that matter, you can’t run your drone on a helicopter to check which among the two comes unscathed out of the collision.
A drone is essentially much smaller in weight, size, and power when compared to a helicopter. It is a blot on the pilot to fly a drone in the way of a manned aircraft.
When we come across drones hitting helicopters in the news, they are proof that many drone operators do not follow the rules quite often. Nevertheless, drones can never pose an imminent threat to manned aircraft.
Drones are too small to bring down a helicopter. Also, manned aircraft of these days come with enough safety features to protect them from birds and smaller flying objects.
However, it is worth approaching the topic from different angles to understand what happens if a drone hits a helicopter.
- Related: How To Prevent Drone Crashes
Fact And Fiction
Towards the end of August 2016, BBC aired Casualty’s 30th anniversary episode. If you have watched this particular episode, you might think a drone can really bring down a helicopter. But you must understand there is always a big gap between fact and fiction.
It is just not possible for a drone of the size of DJI Phantom for instance to bring down a large helicopter of the size of the air ambulance you will see in Casualty.
Though the tail blades of helicopters can be damaged due to tail strike by foreign objects, the most modern helicopters are fitted with steel skid plates beneath the blades that can protect them from heavy landings.
The tail blades of modern helicopters feature a honeycomb sandwich design made from very strong composite materials such as carbon fiber and Kevlar. In some cases, there is also a stainless steel leading edge to shield them from damage due to stones.
The precision-engineered blades of helicopters can sustain temperatures between 40 C and 90 C. They can rotate at speeds of 200 m/s. A human trying to walk into one of these huge tail blades when it is rotating amounts to committing suicide.
However, the BBC drama expects the audience to believe that a drone made of plastic not weighing more than 2kgs can cause catastrophic damage to the air ambulance helicopter while it attempts to land at the hospital.
Cinematic scenes like this add fuel to the fears of people that drones are a public threat. They too build up on the popular tendency of demonizing drones.
You must understand that this fictional crash lacks any foundation in fact. If the drone tried to get anywhere near the helicopter, the downdraft of the blades would have blown the down away.
Even if the drone happens to hit the helicopter, it could never have broken its tail blade as the film depicts it.
What Happens If A Drone Hits A Helicopter?
To give enough technical backing to this discussion, I wish to make a reference to a news article I came across in 2018.
The video accompanying the news shows what happens if a drone hits an airplane wing. DJI called this incident agenda-driven. The news is about a surfing event organized in Hawaii.
At the surfing event in Hawaii conducted as part of the World Surfing League (WSL), someone used a drone to film the surfers. By throwing surfing pins, the water patrol tried knocking out the drone.
When nothing of that sort would dissuade the pilot to take the drone away from the scene, the patrol asked for assistance and a chopper appeared in the sky.
In no time the helicopter’s downwash knocked the drone out of the sky sending it into the ocean waters within a second.
There are several methods employed to knock drones out of the sky including shotguns, drone catching drones with huge nets, and trained eagles. To this list, we can also add helicopters.
Why Consumer Drones Are A Risk For Helicopters
A recent report published by the UK Government points out that consumer drones are a significant risk for helicopters.
The UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is of the opinion that among the different types of manned aircraft, helicopters face the greatest risk from drones.
The arguments listed in the report are backed by cites from a specialist from BALPA (British Airline Pilots Association). The report produces three important reasons why the safety of helicopters is a crucial topic.
#1. Helicopters are “supremely susceptible to catastrophic damage” as a result of a drone hitting any part of the helicopter, most importantly the rotors and the windscreen.
#2. When compared to other types of aircraft, helicopters fly over crowded and urban areas where there is little margin for error.
#3. BALPA observes that an overwhelming number of helicopter missions happen in areas where drone activities are more likely which can include police and traffic incidents.
Due to drone interferences, we come across a number of helicopter crashes and near misses in some cases. In 2018, FAA reported the first ever helicopter crash due to a drone.
On February 18, 2018, a DJI Phantom drone flew right in front of a helicopter during a training flight. The instructor immediately swerved causing the helicopter to hit a tree.
After this incident flashed on the news, several such accidents caused by drones are bombarding the media. One such accident was the crash in Leicester City AW169, in which a police drone flying too close to the helicopter was the suspect.
Babcock International, one of the largest air ambulance operators in the UK urges to create temporary flight-restriction zones around the landing sites used for helicopters in order to mitigate the risks.
A BALPA representative Captain Tim Pottage said, “We still feel strongly that there is a need for a temporary flight restriction zone to be placed around the landing sites of ad hoc landing zones for emergency helicopter activity.
The first thing would be to require that there is a temporary restriction zone. We would suggest 1 km, unless it is co-ordinated with the helicopter pilot.”
In the conclusion, the report summarizes the section on helicopters by saying, “The Government should introduce temporary drone flight restriction zones around helicopter landing zones.
The Government should publish findings from a review on this and legislate accordingly within the next twelve months.”
What Really Happened When A Drone Hit A Helicopter – Citing The News
In June 2020, a report published by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that a drone had hit a helicopter. As per the news, the pilot of a Los Angeles news helicopter hovering in Class G airspace at more than 400 feet under visual rules heard a big noise.
Initially, the pilot thought the noise was due to a bird strike. As per the safety protocols, the pilot accomplished a “precautionary landing.” The examination of the aircraft revealed a small dent in the helicopter’s horizontal stabilizer. According to the NTSB report, this was minor damage.
Though no drone was spotted in the vicinity of the incident and no drone parts were discovered in the region, the NTSB report concluded with certainty, “Although no drone was located, preventing complete certainty, all the available evidence was consistent with a collision with a small UAS.”
This could be true. Probes into several such incidents later revealed that they were caused by other flying objects. If the NTSB conclusion was true with regard to the incident cited above, it goes without saying that the drone operator had not followed the regulations.
The collision reported in the incident happened in Class G airspace. The helicopter was flying over 400 feet from the ground and the 14 CFR Part 107 has a ruling that the regulatory maximum for small drones is 400 feet.
There is a provision in Part 107 that permits flying small drones above 400 feet provided the drone is flying within 400 feet laterally from a tall structure.
The altitude and location are not the ones authorized for flying without a waiver in place. It is very likely that the drone operator could have operated the drone from on top of a tall building. In the worst case, the pilot could have exceeded or deviated from the lateral requirements.
If the said collision had occurred between a helicopter and a drone, it is very unfortunate and places a thrust on developing unmanned traffic systems rather quickly.
However, this is neither an example to conclude that drones are necessarily dangerous nor evidence to prove the clueless or criminal act of drone pilots.
If a drone had hit a helicopter, it becomes one another piece of evidence to support the fact that the manned aircraft is the winner in any collision involving a drone and a helicopter.
The Inherent Risk Of Drones Colliding With Helicopters
Evaluating the risk of a drone colliding with a helicopter is not an easy task. A number of studies in these lines have been backed by simulations. Such efforts have rated the risk anywhere from minimum to severe. Such studies however do not give us reliable information to base the regulations.
The scarce data that we have in this connection are the rare incidents of crashes when drones had actually collided with some kind of manned aircraft. In none of these incidents, there was any serious damage perceived to the manned aircraft.
This cannot be considered a coincidence, observes Paul Rossi representing the Nine Ten Drones, a drone services and training company based in N.C. hailing from a military background connected to aviation maintenance, Rossi is also an unmanned pilot.
One of its main focuses of Rossi is on safety. From his experience, Rossi says, “commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) drones just don’t have the size or weight to cause catastrophic damage to a manned aircraft.”
However, with the development of more complex systems and when an increasing number of larger drones come to use, this situation might change – however, “the current commonly used aircraft aren’t likely to down a manned aircraft,” confirms Rossi.
A number of regulators, manufacturers, and pilots around the globe seem to agree with him. But, this is not so easy to prove. The only way to evaluate the risk is by collecting real drone incident data. At this point of time, we do have not enough of it.
This has been a point, that drone makers like DJI have been stressing for quite long as the drone industry is trying its best to win over public opinion and come to a stage of risk-based regulation.
A note to the drone operators
Anyone in the drone industry would agree with the fact that education and a culture where safety is a priority must be fostered at any cost. Even in the domain of drones, FAA is investing a great deal in education.
Some commercial organizations and renowned community-based entities like AMA agree on the importance of training pilots.
Despite the best efforts, the safety standards are hard to achieve without the cooperation of every single drone operator. Both recreational and commercial drones are quickly developing to their full potential.
As a drone pilot, the safety of your drone must be your priority. At the same time, following the rules strictly is a way to prove your responsibility towards your community.