An article written by David Zucchino published in the Los Angeles Times under the headline “War Zone Drone Crashes Add Up” recently caught my eye. I am sure that anyone reading this blog is aware of the exponential growth in the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for military operations across the world. As a result, the UAS market has been on fire, even during the darkest periods of the worldwide economic downturn. I could cite mountains of analyst reports speaking to the explosive growth of the UAS market, and predictions of even greater expansion, but what’s the point? Again, the readers of this blog, for the most part, have heard it all before. More important, it is all true.
What prompted me to read the piece was the arresting title, which hinted that one of the most successful and popular military programs in recent history (across the military, the government, and the people) – the development and increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles in military operations – was not the unqualified success it is widely perceived to be.
Had the fourth estate uncovered secret documents demonstrating UAS vulnerabilities and limitations? Actually, no. In fact, the fair-minded article reports quite the opposite. Quoting Air Force officials, the article does note that unmanned systems were not ready for the new role they were to play driving the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, and explained how armed versions of UAVs went into theater of operations just nine months after surveillance versions of the same aircraft were retrofitted and weaponized. The article also describes that early systems used off-the-shelf equipment to hastily add new functionality, and systems had failures because they had no fuel gauge or used poorly designed operator controls-signs of a rushed deployment.
According to the article, 38 drones have crashed while on missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and another nine went down during training, with each accident estimated to cost between $3.7 million and $5 million. The Air Force gives the figure of 79 as the total number of UAV crashes, each costing at least $1 million.
The number of crashes, however, does not tell the whole story, not by a long shot. There are a number of mitigating factors. First, the systems are being used for wartime military operations, often flying under conditions that are not ideal and under hostile fire. Also, the systems fly a great deal… much more than they were ever designed for. The article notes that in 2009 UAS flew 185,000 hours over Afghanistan and Iraq, three times more than in 2006, and this figure is expected to rise to 300,000 hours in 2010. Yet, accident rates for both the Predator and Reaper UAS dropped in 2009. The article reports that Predator accident rate are similar to that of the manned F-16 fighter at the same time in its deployment (F-16 range in price from $14.6 million to $18.8 million), and actually less than that of single-engine private airplanes.
Most unmanned system crashes are not the result of system failure. Even in the era of robotics technology and system autonomy, human operators are the leading source of UAS system failures (an Air Force Research Laboratory found that 80 percent of Predator crashes involved some manner of human error). Actually, the idea of “humans” and “humanness” is very important. No human pilot was killed in any of the UAS mishaps.Read More