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 risk.

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 fatalities).
  • 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 drones.
  • 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 ingestion).
  • Other RPAS collisions might 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.
  • 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 families.
  • In 2014-2015, aircraft struck very large birds (i.e. heavier than 3.65 kg) at Brisbane (a Pelican and two Eagles), Cairns (Eagle), Darwin (Jabiru), Sydney (Pelican), Avalon (Eagle), Launceston (Swan), and Rockhampton (Pelican). source: ATSB Wildlife Strike Statistics
  • 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 blender).
  • 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 recreationally.

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 registration.

Operators of drones of 2kg or more need to hold an RPA operator’s certificate, but do not require insurance or registration.

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 non-controlled aerodromes
  • 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 obtain permission
  • 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 permitted

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 and Facebook.

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 drones

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 to vigilant.