DJI Calls Research Video of Drone Hitting Airplane Wing 'Misleading,' Demands Withdrawal

DJI Calls Research Video of Drone Hitting Airplane Wing 'Misleading,' Demands Withdrawal

You might have seen a recent video in which the University of Dayton Research Institute fired a DJI drone at an aircraft wing, causing serious structural damage. DJI called the video a "scenario inconceivable in real life" and has sent a letter to the university demanding its withdrawal.

The letter, sent via email to the lead researcher on the project, Kevin Poormon, asserts that DJI takes safety very seriously and takes issue with several aspects of the video, including:

  • The speed of the impact in the video assumes that the Mooney M20 used in the project was flying at maximum cruising speed and the drone was flying beyond its maximum speed. The plane would only be flying that fast at altitudes well above a drone's regulated maximum altitude. DJI asserts that the actual impact energy would be much lower due to the slower speed the plane would be flying at were it to encounter a drone at a normal altitude where they're found.
  • The researchers used the damage caused to a four-seater plane as evidence of that which would be caused to a commercial jet.
  • The researchers did not follow rigorous scientific testing protocol.
  • The test was designed to maximize damage instead of following FAA's protocol, which dictate testing the most likely scenario.

Altogether, DJI asserts that the test created an unrealistic scenario designed to "generate paid research work for UDRI at the expense of the reputation of drone technology broadly, and DJI's products specifically." The company has demanded that the research be withdrawn and a statement of correction be issued. As of now, the video is still live. 

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michaeljin's picture

Out of curiosity, has DJI published the findings of its own scientific research and footage of its own tests regarding the potential impact of drone strikes on airplanes for peer review? I agree that the test done in the referenced video is flawed, but it seems to me that a better answer to it, if commercial aircraft are indeed safe from drone strikes, would be to publish your own data. I can't imagine that they don't have it.

Also, I think it's a pretty well known fact that plenty of drone users fly their drones above legal altitude so it would be foolish to not take that into consideration at all even if it comes with an asterisk.

michael andrew's picture

Well plenty of people speed in their cars too, but that is not legal and car companies are not required to have impact tests at 120mph. I don’t really have any idea what car companies are required to test, but all the ones I find on YouTube are of resonable legal scenarios. They don’t drive a car 100 mph into a wall and measure the damage, they go 50.

So it is reasonable for DJI to say, hey, we have worked with the FAA to geofence at 380ft AGL, let’s keep the published data at the legal scenarios because that’s all we as a company feel is fair.

Beyond that, lots of people are afraid of drones, but how many drone (small consumer uavs) have been tied to certain death by way of an accident? I believe it is Zero.

How many helicopters and planes have killed people on the ground? Yet people don’t flip out when a helicopter takes off. Interesting

michaeljin's picture

"So it is reasonable for DJI to say, hey, we have worked with the FAA to geofence at 380ft AGL, let’s keep the published data at the legal scenarios because that’s all we as a company feel is fair."

In an ideal world, you wouldn't have to run a crash test between a drone and an airplane at all because there's no legal reason that I know of for a consumer drone to be flying in the path of an airplane. To the contrary, our laws are pretty much designed, when followed properly, to effectively reduce this possibility to zero. So if you're testing scenarios where a drone and an airplane are occupying the same space, then you're already assuming that some sort of law or regulation has been broken. Why, then, would you ignore studying the same incident occurring at a higher altitude that's also illegal?

So no, it's not reasonable for DJI to say that they only want to keep the published data at "legal scenarios" because there's no legal scenario where a drone is going to be a meeting an airplane. That's like a car company complaining that somebody is doing a crash test involving a car and a wall on the basis that a car has no legal reason to be running into a wall and it's nowhere near as likely as a car crashing into another vehicle. Any data that we have is potentially important and as long as it's scientifically rigorous and up front about all of the methodology, I say it's fair game. Obviously in this scenario, DJI is arguing also against the scientific rigor of the particular test and that's an argument that I won't get into simply because my knowledge of it is limited to the video that was shown. Hopefully someone with more experience in this area who's familiar with the study may be able to chime in.

As far as the difference between helicopters and drones, I think the reason that there's far less hysteria surrounding them (despite the fact that after a little bit of reading, I believe them to be super complex aeronautic nightmares) is because helicopters are piloted by human beings who are inside the vehicle and required to be trained and licensed to pilot it. If a helicopter crashes, it is registered to an entity and there's some degree of accountability involved—even if it's a dead pilot. At very least, we can point a finger and blame a known entity. Also, the average idiot doesn't have the disposable income to just to out and buy a helicopter for fun.

Drones, on the other hand, can be purchased anonymously without any license or registration requirement. Drones, unlike helicopters, are cheap enough that the average person can go out and buy one on a whim for fun (last year my boss bought a drone, got drunk, and flew it around the inside of our office, doing fly-by's across people heads and ramming into people for fun). There's zero practical accountability if something does go wrong since in most instances, there's no way to tie a drone involved in any incident with the pilot (the incident in my office where the culprit is known is the exception rather than the rule). Also, the fact that it's essentially a "toy" rather than a vehicle that the pilot is riding in encourages all manner of irresponsible behavior that no idiot with any sense of self preservation would attempt to do in a helicopter. So in short, it's not exactly a 1:1 comparison between drones and helicopters.

In my opinion, the solution to drones is accountability. Respect them as moving vehicles that have the capacity to injure people and treat them the same way as other similar vehicles. That means that rather than selling them as toys on Amazon, regulating them by educating pilots, having standardized testing, issuing drone pilot licenses, requiring that all drones be registered upon purchase, etc. Also create a way to identify the owner of any drone at distance, whether it's a highly visible number, required radio transponder, etc. This would come with penalties involving drones that are equivalent to those involved with other aerial vehicles such as helicopters or planes. Once you create accountability, you stop a LOT of the stupidity and a lot of the worry. Pretty much all of the fear surrounding drones, irrational or not, stems from this complete lack of accountability surrounding them.

I'm not particularly fearful of drones and I'm personally fine with having consumer grade drones to play around with that can be treated as toys akin to RC helicopters or planes, but DJI is not being very responsible in their consumer drone design with a reliance on software solutions to limit performance rather than going the route or removing the physical hardware that allows for the type of performance that's troublesome. They could design drones for their consumer lines, for instance, that have far weaker signal strength for control. If you're not meant to legally be able to fly a drone out of line of sight or above 400 feet, there's no reason for a consumer drone and controller to have the physical hardware capability to operate 15,000 feet in the air or from over a mile away. Neither is there any particular reason for an airborne toy with solid parts and rotating blades to be able to travel as fast as a car. Let people have their toys as they always have, but leave the drones with real specs to registered pilots who've undergone education and are accountable for their actions.

michael andrew's picture

" because there's no legal scenario where a drone is going to be a meeting an airplane. "

Yes, there is.

Private Pilots can fly below 500 ft AGL, they are only supposed to be above that over people and buildings, but can and do often fly below 500ft. You see it ALL the time. You are confusing private flights with commercial flights which Im sure has much stricter regulations.

Commercial airliners however don't burden the risk of flying for sport or leisure so they get up to a much safer altitude much quicker.

I am not in support of drone behavior that would potentially cause an accident, however with the amount of drones that have been in the skies for the last 6 years with not a single incident, the assumption of risk is just that, and assumption with no actual data.

Bird strikes, which weigh more or the same, happen to the tune of 179,000 reported incidents from 1990-2016, and have actually cause many deaths and crashes, but we don't see articles and fear based campaigns freaking out over the looming danger of birds.

The answer to the "problem" is to improve the technology, because idiots will always break the rules. Drones need transponders with a live feed to a database of geospatial mapping. If a pilot and a control tower and geofence can all work in harmony then the risk (which again is shown to be extremely low so far) can be even further reduced.

Oliver Kmia's picture

DJI base its main argument based on the specification (speed) of the Mooney 20J model but the university doesn't (to my knowledge) disclosed which model was used. The blog post only mention "Mooney 20". The original Mooney 20 from the 50s is slow but the more modern variants can fly faster than the speed used in this crash test.
The main problem with this test is that they didn't disclose any results and test protocol.

cameramanDop Shanghai Hong Kong's picture

Did this video scared the drone enthusiast who have no idea how dangerous his flight path could be ?.... YES

Is this video looking serious for drone pilot respecting the law?... NO