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Why Drones Crash

Time again to put up another post on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or unmanned aircraft…ok, so let’s just call it a drone for now.

I pointed out a few days ago that the U.S. Gov’t in 2008 was formally warned of the extremely high rate of drone accidents.

…a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan analytical arm of Congress, found UAVs have an accident rate 100 percent higher than manned aircraft.

Things apparently haven’t improved much since, three years later, we are all being subjected to headlines about yet another drone that got away. This should be of little surprise, given the trend.

An analysis of official Air Force data conducted by TomDispatch indicates that its drones crashed in spectacular fashion no less than 13 times in 2011, including that May 5th crash in Kandahar.

About half of those mishaps, all resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more, occurred in Afghanistan or in the tiny African nation of Djibouti, which serves as a base for drones involved in the U.S. secret wars in Somalia and Yemen. All but two of the incidents involved the MQ-1 model, and four of them took place in May.

In 2010, there were seven major drone mishaps, all but one involving Predators; in 2009, there were 11. In other words, there have been 31 drone losses in three years, none apparently shot down, all diving into the planet of their own mechanical accord or thanks to human error.

Maybe the military will always report drone crashes as errors. That’s possible, I guess, especially as they often do clandestine and very remote things. Either way they have a high rate of failure that have been publicly linked to some basic risk factors that do not appear to be getting better.

I pointed out earlier also that the NTSB investigation of a U.S. drone accident had some clear recommendations for how to reduce failures. They said things like follow checklists, require supervision for inexperienced pilots…you know, the kind of stuff that reportedly isn’t being done when these drones have accidents.

The final leg of the doomed mission — in support of elite special operations forces — was being carried out by a pilot who had been operating Predators for about 10 months and had flown drones for approximately 51 hours over the previous 90 days. With less than 400 total hours under his belt, he was considered “inexperienced” by Air Force standards and, during his drone launch and recovery training, had failed two simulator sessions and one flying exercise. He had, however, excelled academically, passed his evaluations, and was considered a qualified MQ-1 pilot, cleared to fly without supervision.


During the post-crash investigation, it was determined that the ground crew in Afghanistan had been regularly using an unauthorized method of draining engine coolant, though it was unclear whether this contributed to the crash.


Eventually, the Air Force ruled that a cooling system malfunction had led to engine failure. An accident investigator also concluded that the pilot had not executed proper procedures after the engine failure, causing the craft to crash just short of the runway, slightly damaging the perimeter fence at Kandahar Air Field and destroying the drone.

Some may have good reason to discuss whether all of the best American anti-jamming technology in the world could not prevent a drone from falling into Iranian hands, but that doesn’t do much to address the mounting data on accidents.

Posted in Security.

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  1. Two Can Play at that game! – The Occupy Movement debuts it’s own UAV drone force | Occupy Cyberspace – American Autumn linked to this post on December 25, 2011

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