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How to Crash a Drone, Safely

It’s time to teach drones how to safely land in an emergency.

(DoD/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

There are plenty of videos online featuring amateur drone pilots frantically racing to catch their prized drone as it drops from the sky. This is all fun and games when that drone is a glorified R/C copter, but as unmanned aircraft begin filling the skies, what will happen if they crash? It’s hard to imagine Amazon’s drone delivery service taking off if the devices run out of juice mid-flight and crash into someone’s car.

Just because drones are unmanned doesn’t make them any less dangerous if they crash into people. And Andrzej Majka of Poland’s Rzeszów University of Technology is trying to figure out how to stop that from happening. Or at least, stop the crashing drones from hurting anybody.

In a paper published Tuesday in a special issue of the journal Aerospace, Majka analyzed several possible ways a drone’s engines can fail mid-flight: running short on flight time, experiencing engine difficulties and losing power entirely. For each situation, Majka tried to create a mathematical formula that would let the drone use whatever capabilities it still had to guide itself to safety as fast as possible without putting bystanders in harm’s way.

Imagine a drone loses engine power mid-air, but it’s navigation systems are intact. Using Majka’s model, the drone could plot a gliding descent to the nearest airfield. Because turning generates drag and could make the drone quickly lose altitude, it would have to plot a course that minimized turning while not simply flying in a straight line.

However, this model assumes that the drone’s navigation systems are still working right and that it knows where nearby houses and towns are. And Majka says his model was written for drones in general, not for a specific model. The paper was published under a Creative Commons license that allows other drone researchers to expand on his work.

As drone technology becomes more and more sophisticated, they will have to rely on algorithms like Majka’s in order to protect the populace from any accidents. They may not be able to pull off any “Miracle on the Hudson”-style landings anytime soon, but right now we can still enjoy watching pilots dive for their drones.

h/t Popular Science

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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