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UAV icing: the influence of airspeed and chord length on performance degradation

Richard Hann (Department of Engineering Cybernetics, Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and System, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway)
Tor Arne Johansen (Department of Engineering Cybernetics, Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and System, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway)

Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology

ISSN: 0002-2667

Article publication date: 19 June 2021

Issue publication date: 5 August 2021




The main purpose of this paper is to investigate the effects of icing on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at low Reynolds numbers and to highlight the differences to icing on manned aircraft at high Reynolds numbers. This paper follows existing research on low Reynolds number effects on ice accretion. This study extends the focus to how variations of airspeed and chord length affect the ice accretions, and aerodynamic performance degradation is investigated.


A parametric study with independent variations of airspeed and chord lengths was conducted on a typical UAV airfoil (RG-15) using icing computational fluid dynamic methods. FENSAP-ICE was used to simulate ice shapes and aerodynamic performance penalties. Validation was performed with two experimental ice shapes obtained from a low-speed icing wind tunnel. Three meteorological conditions were chosen to represent the icing typologies of rime, glaze and mixed ice. A parameter study with different chord lengths and airspeeds was then conducted for rime, glaze and mixed icing conditions.


The simulation results showed that the effect of airspeed variation depended on the ice accretion regime. For rime, it led to a minor increase in ice accretion. For mixed and glaze, the impact on ice geometry and penalties was substantially larger. The variation of chord length had a substantial impact on relative ice thicknesses, ice area, ice limits and performance degradation, independent from the icing regime.

Research limitations/implications

The implications of this manuscript are relevant for highlighting the differences between icing on manned and unmanned aircraft. Unmanned aircraft are typically smaller and fly slower than manned aircraft. Although previous research has documented the influence of this on the ice accretions, this paper investigates the effect on aerodynamic performance degradation. The findings in this work show that UAVs are more sensitive to icing conditions compared to larger and faster manned aircraft. By consequence, icing conditions are more severe for UAVs.

Practical implications

Atmospheric in-flight icing is a severe risk for fixed-wing UAVs and significantly limits their operational envelope. As UAVs are typically smaller and operate at lower airspeeds compared to manned aircraft, it is important to understand how the differences in airspeed and size affect ice accretion and aerodynamic performance penalties.


Earlier work has described the effect of Reynolds number variations on the ice accretion characteristics for UAVs. This work is expanding on those findings by investigating the effect of airspeed and chord length on ice accretion shapes separately. In addition, this study also investigates how these parameters affect aerodynamic performance penalties (lift, drag and stall).



This work has received funding from the Research Council of Norway under grant numbers 237906 Centre for Integrated Remote Sensing and Forecasting for Arctic Operations (CIRFA) and 223254 Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems (NTNU-AMOS). Further funding was received from the Norwegian Research Council FORNY, grant number 284649, and from the Regionalt Forskningsfond Midt-Norge, grant number 285248. The numerical simulations were performed on resources provided by the National Infrastructure for High Performance Computing and Data Storage in Norway (UNINETT Sigma2) on the Vilje supercomputer, under project code NN9613K Notur/NorStore.


Hann, R. and Johansen, T.A. (2021), "UAV icing: the influence of airspeed and chord length on performance degradation", Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology, Vol. 93 No. 5, pp. 832-841.



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