UAH Expert: Drones, People Could Co-exist

RSESC Director David Arterburn learned his craft during 28 years in Army Aviation before coming to UAH. 


Regular readers of Benchmarks may be familiar with this writer’s expectation that man and machine will eventually do cataclysmic, carbon vs. silicon, loser-leave-town battle. Imagine, then, the writer’s concern when University of Alabama in Huntsville researchers told lawmakers in Washington D.C. that the risk to humans posed by the operation of small drones buzzing overhead may have been previously overestimated.

David Arterburn, director of the Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center at UAH, made his report on behalf of UAH and four other universities. The remarks centered on drones that weigh less than 55 pounds and must currently be flown by operators who can follow the drone’s line of flight. Such drones can’t be flown over people who are not involved with their flight operations.

The research found that the lighter materials used to construct that class of drones — usually plastic and foam rather than metal — led to a lower injury potential in the event of crashes and collisions. 

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Testing showed that the injury potential arising from the kinetic energy of debris in a human-drone impact was smaller than that projected by debris casualty standards used by the national test ranges that previously were being applied to collision research for small unmanned aerial systems, Arterburn says. Debris standards used for the breakup of missiles or space vehicles isn’t appropriate for use in defining standards for smaller drones.

“The collision dynamics of these small vehicles is very different from metal objects, ” Arterburn told UAH News. Small unmanned aerial system platforms “are flexible and retain much of their energy, while inelastic metal fragments or objects transfer nearly all of their energy to a person.”

The upshot of Arterburn’s report seems to be that more research is needed on how drones actually operate in flight, as opposed to rockets and missiles. So the days of drones skimming over your head like irritated blue jays are perhaps still a while off. 

Text by Dave Helms

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