While drones may have their origins in military applications, potential new uses could include food and medicine delivery, order fulfillment, and even traffic management. However, one of the key obstacles to their expanded use is an FAA regulation that prohibits the operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) flying over areas with people. And although operators can apply for a waiver, the fears over drones hitting people have resulted in only three having been granted so far.
To help better educate the governing body, Virginia Tech's injury biomechanics group studied the risks associated with potential drone-human collisions. The team flew aircraft into test dummies at full speed and dropped them directly on the dummy’s head from different directions.
While larger aircraft and higher speeds unmistakably resulted in greater bodily harm, the collision tests seem to show that the size and speed limits of drones currently in use for commercial operations should make them safe to operate around people. However, the drop tests, in which there was more contact between the aircraft center and the dummy's head tended to result in much more severe injuries.
Another variable impacting the outcome was whether the aircraft was deflected away from the body by the arm, for example. This reduction in force also reduced the risk of injury.
The key takeaways from the research seemed to focus on potential changes to drone design. This changes could include features that allow for redirecting the drone’s center of mass, or the design of parts that begin to detach from the main body in the event of an impending impact. Essentially, the study indicates that while drones do pose some risk to humans, they’re not as severe as initially projected and could be curbed with design iterations that focus on slowing UAS and lessening their impact.