A yearlong investigation by the Washington Post reveals that more than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed around the world since 2001, due to mechanical breakdowns, human error and bad weather. The report is certain to raise concerns about allowing drones to fly in U.S. airspace.
The Post's investigation is based on records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, including more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports. Although nobody has died as a result of a drone crash, there have been a number of close calls as unpiloted military vehicles have slammed into homes, highways, farms and an Air Force transport plane in mid-air. In April, a 375-pound Army drone crashed next to an elementary school playground just a few minutes after students had left for the day.
A multitude of costly mistakes have been caused by the 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."
After reviewing all the accident reports, the Post summarized the fundamental safety hurdles that the military and manufacturers have to overcome:
- 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. Many accidents were triggered by basic electrical malfunctions; others were caused by bad weather. Military personnel blamed some mishaps on inexplicable problems. The crews of two doomed Predators that crashed in 2008 and 2009 told investigators that their respective planes had been "possessed" and plagued by "demons."
- Unreliable communications links. Drones are dependent on wireless transmissions to relay commands and navigational information, usually via satellite. Those connections can be fragile. Records show that links were disrupted or lost in more than a quarter of the worst crashes.
In addition to printed documents, the Post also acquired this video of a Predator drone being flown in Iraq, filming its own demise as an oil leak ignited a fire:
Visit the Post website for more details, including several interactive infographics created from its drone crash database.