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UAV Safety Questioned As US Loses Over 400

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When Drones Fall from the Sky (excerpt)

(Source: Washington Post; published on June 20, 2014)

More than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001, a record of calamity that exposes the potential dangers of throwing open American skies to drone traffic, according to a year-long Washington Post investigation.

Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons, according to more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

Crashes around the world

More than 400 large U.S. military drones crashed in major accidents worldwide between Sept. 11, 2001, and December 2013. By reviewing military investigative reports and other records, The Washinton Post was able to identify 194 drone crashes that fell into the most severe category: Class A accidents that destroyed the aircraft or caused (under current standards) at least $2 million in damage.

Commercial drone flights are set to become a widespread reality in the United States, starting next year, under a 2012 law passed by Congress. Drone flights by law enforcement agencies and the military, which already occur on a limited basis, are projected to surge.

The documents obtained by The Post detail scores of previously unreported crashes involving remotely controlled aircraft, challenging the federal government’s assurances that drones will be able to fly safely over populated areas and in the same airspace as passenger planes.

Military drones have slammed into homes, farms, runways, highways, waterways and, in one case, an Air Force C-130 Hercules transport plane in midair. No one has died in a drone accident, but the documents show that many catastrophes have been narrowly averted, often by a few feet, or a few seconds, or pure luck.

“All I saw were tents, and I was afraid that I had killed someone,” Air Force Maj. Richard Wageman told investigators after an accident in November 2008, when he lost control of a Predator that plowed into a U.S. base in Afghanistan. “I felt numb, and I am certain that a few cuss words came out of my mouth.”

Investigators were unable to pinpoint a definitive cause for the accident but said wind and an aggressive turn by the pilot were factors. Wageman did not respond to a request for comment through an Air Force spokeswoman.

Several military drones have simply disappeared while at cruising altitudes, never to be seen again. In September 2009, an armed Reaper drone, with a 66-foot wingspan, flew on the loose across Afghanistan after its handlers lost control of the aircraft. U.S. fighter jets shot it down as it neared Tajikistan.

The documents describe a multitude of costly mistakes by remote-control pilots. A $3.8 million Predator carrying a Hellfire missile cratered near Kandahar in January 2010 because the pilot did not realize she had been flying the aircraft upside-down. Later that year, another armed Predator crashed nearby after the pilot did not notice he had squeezed the wrong red button on his joystick, putting the plane into a spin.

While most of the malfunctioning aircraft have perished in combat zones, dozens have been destroyed in the United States during test and training flights that have gone awry.

In April, a 375-pound Army drone crashed next to an elementary-school playground in Pennsylvania, just a few minutes after students went home for the day. In Upstate New York, the Air Force still cannot find a Reaper that has been missing since November, when it plunged into Lake Ontario. In June 2012, a Navy RQ-4 surveillance drone with a wingspan as wide as a Boeing 757′s nose-dived into Maryland’s Eastern Shore, igniting a wildfire.

Defense Department officials said they are confident in the reliability of their drones. Most of the crashes occurred in war, they emphasized, under harsh conditions unlikely to be replicated in the United States. (end of excerpt)

Click here for the full story, on the Washington Post website.


“When Drones Fall from the Sky” Story Falls Short

(Source: Aerospace Industries Association; issued June 20, 2014)

Statement by AIA President and CEO Marion C. Blakey on Washington Post article on unmanned aircraft systems’ safety record

ARLINGTON, Va. --- Today’s Washington Post story, “When Drones Fall from the Sky” ignores critical factors regarding safety of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in a misguided article that could frighten readers about the impending integration of UAS into the national airspace system.

From the opening sentence, the author refers to “a record of calamity that exposes the potential dangers of throwing open American skies to drone traffic,” when in fact, the safety records of military aircraft – which the author admits are improving and haven’t cost a single life – have little to do with future safe commercial operations of unmanned systems in domestic airspace on which the FAA is working diligently.

The FAA UAS integration roadmap and launch of the six designated UAS test sites highlight a systematic approach to safely integrate UAS. We cannot overstate the importance that FAA places on safety, its primary mission. Later this year FAA will issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on small UAS, beginning the process for seeking public comment and ultimately issuing regulations governing the use of UAS under 55 pounds.

Those systems – which are the first FAA plans to certify for domestic use – will operate within strict guidelines and only when they meet the new standards.

It’s wrong to conflate the performance of far heavier systems, largely operated in combat zones and in more extreme weather and terrain conditions, with the kinds of limited operations FAA currently is contemplating in the United States. Military aircraft loss rates are higher when in the development and test phase; as they mature and enter full production and normal operations, loss rates decline. Moreover, the loss rates that major military UAS systems are experiencing compare very favorably to the loss rates of manned systems at the same point in their development cycle. Nothing leads us to believe unmanned aircraft will not be as safe or safer than manned aircraft over the long term.

Unmanned systems are an important new technology, and can perform vital safety operations as well as opening new markets for commercial enterprises. From precision agriculture and advanced tornado research to shooting movies and photojournalism, UAS have a wide variety of future applications. Scaring the public with unfounded comparisons will not contribute usefully to progress on integrating UAS safely into the national airspace system.