The dangers of flying a drone near aircraft
If you think of a drone
as a mechanical bird, then data upon bird strikes on
aircraft will help predict the damage expected from
collisions between drones and manned aircraft.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has used this
methodology in its recent report: A safety analysis of
remotely piloted aircraft systems: A rapid growth and safety
implications for traditional aircraft. Selections from
the report are set out below.
The Drone Safety Laws administered by the Australian Civil
Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), place emphasis on no
no-fly zones near airports. The laws are set out below.
Finally, we look at how commercial insurance policies cover
liability for drone strikes.
ATSB Transport Safety Report
– AR2017-016 16 March 2017
The ATSB sees the growth in the number of drones (ATSB calls
them Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems - RPAS) as an
emerging and insufficiently understood transport safety
These are selections from the ATSB report:
- There are no reported collisions between RPAS and
manned aircraft in Australia to date. There were 69 near
encounters (where a collision was narrowly avoided)
reported in 2016. Most occurred in capital cities,
Sydney in particular. About half were above 1,000ft to
5,000ft above mean sea level, and 16% were above
5,000ft. They occur more often at weekends, suggesting
recreational use of drones.
- World-wide there have been five known mid-air
collisions of aircraft with RPAS in Europe and the USA.
Three resulted in scratches to the fuselage, one a
crushed wing on a sport bi-plane (which landed safely)
and one a broken wing on a glider (which crashed with
- Due to the rarity of actual collisions, the ATSB has
used mathematical models, using abundant bird strike
data to predict damage expected from collisions with
- Most RPAS collisions will damage or penetrate the
aircraft’s flight surfaces (wings and tail), resulting
in a loss of control, or might penetrate a windscreen
resulting in pilot incapacitation.
- The modeling showed that the engine will be damaged
more frequently than the wings in high capacity
aircraft. In low capacity and general aviation aircraft,
wings are more likely to be damaged than the engine.
- The ATBS predicts that about 8 per cent of RPAS
(drone) collisions with high capacity air transport
aircraft will lead to engine ingestion, and of those,
more than 20 per cent will cause engine damage and
engine shutdown (which is higher than for bird
- Commercial aircraft are certified to withstand a
wildlife collision – up to 3.65kg for the large turbofan
engines found on the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320
- In 2014-2015, aircraft struck very large birds (i.e.
heavier than 3.65 kg) at or near Brisbane (a Pelican and
two Eagles), Cairns (Eagle), Darwin (Jabiru), Sydney
(Pelican), Avalon (Eagle), Launceston (Swan), and
Rockhampton (Pelican). source: ATSB Wildlife Strike
- Aircraft are not currently certified to withstand a
drone collision. RPAS differ from birds physically in
that they are a rigid collection of common components
built into a light airframe. The RPAS battery, being
heavy and combustible, can damage the engine rotors.
Birds liquefy when ingested into an engine (like in a
- The ATSB report concludes that: As remotely piloted
aircraft are rigid and generally heavier than most
birds, the overall proportion of collisions resulting in
aircraft damage is expected to be higher than for bird
strikes, and the distribution of damage across an
airframe will probably also differ.
The Drone Safety Laws -
29 September 2016
The Drone Safety Laws apply to drones (CASA calls them
Remotely Piloted Aircraft - RPA) flown commercially or
The Drone Safety Laws are found in the Civil Aviation
Regulations 1998 - Part 101 (Unmanned Aircraft and Rockets).
They are administered by CASA.
CASA restricts the operation of drones under 2 kg flown
recreationally or commercially, because no training is
required, nor is an RPA operator’s certificate, insurance or
Operators of drones of 2kg or more need to hold an RPA
operator’s certificate, but do not require insurance or
Drones may not be flown in prohibited airspace, such as
within a 5.5km radius of a controlled aerodrome (i.e. one
with a control tower). Other airspace can be restricted.
The Drone Safety Laws (CASR 101) which apply to prevent
collisions with aircraft are:
- Hazardous operation prohibited (CASR 101.055)
i.e. A person must not operate an unmanned aircraft
in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft,
person or property
- Operation in prohibited or restricted area (CASR
101.065) i.e. 5.5km from controlled aerodromes; and
aircraft approach or departure paths for
- Operation in controlled airspace above 400ft AGL
(CASR 101.070) i.e. operation requires air traffic
control clearance and be in an approved area
- Operation near aerodromes (CASR 101.075) i.e.
above 400ft near a non-controlled aerodrome requires
permission - CASR 101.080 lists requirements to
- Dropping or discharging things (CASR 101.090)
i.e. no payload such as parcels, which creates a
hazard to another aircraft, person or property is
Recently, CASA embarked on a public education program. It
has produced a smartphone app illustrating the no fly zones,
called Can I fly there? - Drone safety app. Drone
no-fly zones are shaded red on the app map; fly-with-caution
zones where aircraft operate at low altitudes are shaded
orange. It has also uploaded drone safety videos on YouTube
The other Drone Safety Laws are:
- Operation must generally be within visual
line of sight (CASR 101.073) i.e. drones up to
2kg are to fly in the operator’s continuous line
of sight, without the use of binoculars, a
telescope or similar device; drones 2kg and over
can go beyond the line of sight.
- Weather and day limitations (CASR 101.095)
i.e. drones up to 2kg can fly only during the
day (until sunset); drones 2kg and over can fly
at night. Drones cannot be flown into cloud.
- Operation near people (CASR 101.245) i.e.
for drones up to 2kg - not flying within 30
metres from people; drones 2kg and over - the
distance is 15 metres.
- RPA are not to be operated over populous
areas (CASR 101.280) i.e. no flying over busy
streets and crowds
- Maximum operating height (CASR 101.085) i.e.
up to 400ft for drones up to 2kg.
Breaches of the Drone Safety Laws are offences
of strict liability for which CASA issues fines.
CASA has issued a fine of $900 for hazardous
flying near wedding guests (hazardous flying at
or near guests), $1,440 for flying a drone over
Sydney Harbour (restricted airspace and near
people) and $900 for flying over a children’s
Easter egg hunt (operation near people). The
maximum fines range from $5,250 and $10,500.
Insurance for damage caused by
Recreational drone users are not insured for liability
caused to aircraft by their drones (aerial devices) in the
standard homeowner’s insurance policy. Damage caused by
aircraft debris to their home is covered.
For commercial operators, the standard General/Public
Liability Policy will exclude liability directly or
indirectly arising from the ownership, maintenance,
operation, possession or use of drones (also known as UAVs -
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).
Extra cover can be purchased. Conditions which apply include
compliance with Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (Part
101), not weighing more than 10kg at take-off, not being jet
propelled and not breaching privacy laws.
The drone insurance cover will be limited because it will
have a liability cap. Damage to an aircraft from a drone
strike is likely to exceed the cap. The drone operator needs