Most drone accidents due to technical faults not users study finds

Technical problems are to blame for the majority of drone-related accidents rather than their operators, according to researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

The research project found 64 per cent of incidents were the result of technical problems, leading to calls for further safeguards in the industry.

RMIT researchers led by Dr Graham Wild from the university's School of Engineering examined more than 150 reported civil incidents around the world involving drones, or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS).

The study covered incidents spanning a ten-year period between 2006 and 2016.

Wild said their findings illustrated the need for further airworthiness requirements for RPAS vehicles, as well as the mandatory reporting of all accidents or incidents.

In December last year, a mandatory registry system was introduced in the USA for owners and operators of unmanned aerial vehicles weighing more than 250 grams in order to allow them to operate in a safe manner. 

"Understanding what happens to drones, even those that don't cause damage to people or property, is essential to improve safety," Wild said.

The research came about after an incident earlier this year involving a drone and a British Airways Airbus A320 at Heathrow Airport.

The study found that in most cases, broken communication links between the pilot and the RPAS were the cause of the incident, leading the researchers to call for the introduction of commercial aircraft style regulations to govern the communication systems.

"Large transport category aircraft, such as those from a Boeing or Airbus, are required to have triple-redundant systems for their communications," Wild said.

"But drones don't and some of the improvements that have reduced the risks in those aircraft could also be used to improve the safety of drones."

Wild said more robust communications systems, even on cheaper RPAS, could help prevent accidents.

Part of the problem with current regulations is related to the large difference in size between those drones that required licences and those that didn't, he said.

Wild said drones weighing less than 25kg do not require any airworthiness certificate, just licences for the pilot, despite the potential damage that could be caused if they fail while flying in a built-up area.

"Drones are being used for a wide range of tasks now and there are a lot of day-to-day activities that people want to use them for - delivering pizzas and packages, taking photos, geosurveying, firefighting, and search and rescue," he said.

"It's essential that our safety regulations keep up with this rapidly-growing industry."

Last month, the first fully autonomous delivery of goods to a commercial customer by a drone in the US took place in Reno, Nevada. 

But in June, five graduate students and their professor announced they had discovered three different ways to send rogue commands from a computer laptop to interfere with a drone's normal operation and land it or send it plummeting. 

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