Drone industry predicts $82 billions in ‘economic benefits’ and 100,000 new jobs by 2025
Mark Shapiro draws our attention to news of more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records obtained by the Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act. The link he sent led to other information, including a detailed 2012 Business Mega account.
These accounts reveal that more than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001. The reasons for these drone malfunctions include mechanical breakdowns, human error, software bugs in the “brains” of the aircraft, poor coordination with civilian air-traffic controllers and bad weather.
Military drones have crashed 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. About one-third of the crashes occurred in Afghanistan, but nearly one-quarter happened in the United States during test and training flights.
As the Pentagon deploys drones away from traditional combat zones, more accidents are occurring in Africa and other locations.
The documents describe many costly mistakes by remote-control pilots.
- 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.
- 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.
Accidents are happening under other military jurisdictions
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.
The Post’s analysis of accident records, however, shows that the military and drone manufacturers have yet to overcome some fundamental safety hurdles:
The drone industry, which lobbied Congress to pass the new law, predicts $82 billion in economic benefits and 100,000 new jobs by 2025.
Though documents obtained by the Post detail scores of previously unreported crashes involving remotely controlled aircraft, challenge the federal government’s assurances that drones will be able to fly safely over populated areas and in the same airspace as passenger planes.
Under the 2012 law passed by Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration is to issue rules by September 2015 allowing commercial drone flights drones in civilian airspace. There is a wide demand:
- Law enforcement agencies already own a small number of camera-equipped drones,
- Businesses see profitable possibilities for drones, to tend crops, move cargo, inspect real estate or film Hollywood movies.
- Journalists have applied for drone licenses to cover the news.
- Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos (who owns the Washington Post) wants his company to use autonomous drones to deliver small packages to customers’ doorsteps.
Disrupted by smart phones?
An Australian triathlete was injured after a (non-military) drone crash in April. She and spectators said the UAV crashed into her but the drone’s owner said she was merely startled. Someone else in the crowd of spectators had briefly taken control of the drone. The cameraman said it would be difficult to find out who had done this, because smartphones could easily be used to carry out such an attack.
This is another immature technology. Nuclear systems were installed well before there was any appreciation of the problem of long-lived toxic waste and research scientists were deceived into thinking they were devising a clean and cheap energy source. The most principled left the industry when they learnt that their brainchild was to be used to make highly lethal and toxic weapons.