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Military Drone Crashes Raise Fears Over Commercial Use in 2015

Over 400 drones have crashed in last 13 years, some even hitting airplanes
(Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)

If the record of military mishaps is any indication, the public might want to “look up” starting next year.

The Washington Post Friday published an in-depth report called “When Drones Fall From the Sky,”  detailing hundreds of incidents in which military drones of various sizes have landed anywhere but on a runway; and catastrophic events have been narrowly averted.

Because of the Congressional measure passed in 2012, commercial or private use of drones is set to begin in 2015.   A number of law enforcement agencies are already testing and setting up units,  and companies are preparing to use them for everything from security surveillance to surveying.

The Post report shows since their initial use in Iraq in 2001, some 400 military drones have crashed around the world,  including the U.S.  According to some 50,000 pages of reports examined by the newspaper:

“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.”

Wow!   Here’s more from the report:

“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.”  (Bold lettering added for emphasis).

Here in the U.S.  in April a 375 lb. Army test drone crashed directly next to a school playground in Pennsylvania,  not long after the children had gone home for the day.  In Upstate New York, officials still cannot find a large Reaper drone that disappeared after it plunged into Lake Ontario.

And in June 2012, a Navy RQ-4 Surveillance drone with the wingspan the size of a Boeing 757 airliner (!) set off a wildfire when it crashed after nose diving into Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

While military and government officials stand by their confidence and belief in drone safety and operational improvements,  others are not so sure.

Some officials and critics say even though the military flies thousands of times without issues, there have still been some problems.  These critics say it’s likely private or commercial drones and their pilots will not have gone through the same stringent training done by military pilots; therefore the chance of mishaps will be far greater.

According to the Post, here are some of the biggest issues with commercial-private drones clouding our skies:

  • A limited ability to detect and avoid trouble. Cameras and high-tech sensors on a drone cannot fully replace a pilot’s eyes and ears and nose in the cockpit. Most remotely controlled planes are not equipped with radar or anti-collision systems designed to prevent midair disasters.
  • Pilot error. Despite popular perceptions, flying a drone is much trickier than playing a video game. The Air Force licenses its drone pilots and trains them constantly, but mistakes are still common, particularly during landings. In four cases over a three-year period, Air Force pilots committed errors so egregious that they were investigated for suspected dereliction of duty.
  • Persistent mechanical defects. Some common drone models were designed without backup safety features and rushed to war without the benefit of years of testing.

They also say unreliable communication links can lead to loss of control of the drone.   If the FAA allows the Congressional mandate to proceed next year, and there aren’t any major roadblocks, some experts say there could be well over 10-15,000 private or commercial drones flying over our heads by the end of this century.

This does NOT apply, however, to much smaller, remote-controlled or “radio controlled” vehicles that are flown using a handset with antennas by the user.  These are done by “line of sight” visual control.   Such units have a limited range, and usually cannot fly beyond the visual sight of the operator.  These are NOT considered drones.

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