What Bird Strikes Reveal About UAS Risks To The Airspace
Casualties from Wildlife Strikes, 1990–2014
” In December 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a new interim final rule that for the first time imposed regulation on the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as model aircraft. In the name of a safe national airspace, the new regulations require operators of drones weighing more than 250g (0.55 pounds) to register with the agency.
Yet many drones weighing more than 250g are little more than toys. Do they really pose a risk to the airspace? To explore this question, we examine 25 years of data from the FAA’s wildlife strike database. Although aircraft collide with birds many thousands of times per year, only a tiny fraction of those collisions result in damage to the aircraft, much less human injuries or deaths. The most serious reported incidents typically involved flocks of large birds. Since the addition of UAS to the airspace is similar in many respects to an increase in the bird population, we conclude that the risk to the airspace caused by small drones (for example, weighing up to 2kg, or 4.41 pounds) flying in solitary formation is minimal.
Overview of the Data
US national airspace is home to an estimated 10 billion birds, some of which occasionally interfere with civil aviation. To track the risk this wildlife poses to human flight, the FAA has been collecting reports of aircraft collisions with wildlife in the National Wildlife Strike Database since 1990. Strike reporting is voluntary. When a wildlife strike occurs, airlines, airports, pilots, or other parties report the incident through an online portal, with data about the aircraft, the flight, the species of wildlife struck, and extent of damage caused.
Compared to the enormous population of birds, damaging bird strikes are rare. Since 1990, there has been a sevenfold increase in reported bird strikes owing both to growing bird populations and to the growing ease of reporting strikes online. But as figure 1 shows, strikes causing damage have actually declined from a peak of 764 in 2000, thanks to bird management efforts from airports. Specifically, airports have mitigated bird hazards by focusing on eliminating natural attractants of the large bird species that are responsible for the most serious incidents, like waste disposal areas and wetlands.
When large birds are ingested in jet engines, they may cause substantial damage, including crashes. While these birds do not number in the billions, they still maintain a significant presence. The US is home to nearly 1.9 million turkey vultures, for instance, and between 2 to 3 million snow geese enter the United States each winter. Contrary to sensational media headlines, the skies are crowded not by drones, but by fowl.
Figure 2 illustrates that while the FAA has recorded over 160,000 wildlife strikes since 1990, only 14,314 bird strike incidents have resulted in damage. Of these, 80 percent were caused by medium- to large-sized animals. On average, only 3 percent of reported small-bird strikes ever result in damage, compared to 39 percent of large-bird strikes. Given the voluntary nature of strike reporting, the true percentage of strikes causing damage is probably much lower, as strikes that do not cause damage can be either missed or underreported.”