Drones Most Accident-Prone U.S. Air Force Craft: BGOV Barometer

Drones Most Accident-Prone U.S. Air Force Craft
A Northrop Grumman Corp. Global Hawk UAV unmanned drone. Source: Rolls-Royce Group Plc via Bloomberg News

The U.S. military’s three biggest drones, made by Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., are the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force fleet.

The BGOV Barometer shows Northrop’s Global Hawk and General Atomics’s Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles have had a combined 9.31 accidents for every 100,000 hours of flying. That’s the highest rate of any category of aircraft and more than triple the fleet-wide average of 3.03, according to military data compiled by Bloomberg.

The June 11 crash of a drone near Bloodsworth Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore illustrated the vehicles’ propensity for accidents, known as “mishaps” in military parlance. The concern is that drones’ safety record won’t improve as they’re increasingly deployed for testing, border surveillance and other missions in U.S. airspace, said Jay Stanley, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.

“If we have 30,000 flying pieces of robotic hardware buzzing above our heads, Americans are going to want to be very certain that it’s safe, in addition to putting in place good rules to protect our privacy,” Stanley said in a telephone interview.

President Barack Obama in February signed legislation directing the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a plan by Sept. 30, 2015 for integrating civil unmanned aerial vehicles into national airspace.

129 Accidents

The Air Force in a 15-year period through Sept. 30 recorded 129 accidents involving its medium- and high-altitude drones: the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk. The figures include accidents that resulted in at least $500,000 in damage or destroyed aircraft during missions around the globe.

Vertical-lift aircraft, including helicopters and the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey made by Boeing Co. and Textron Inc., had the second-highest accident rate, with 6.33 per 100,000 flight hours. Training planes had the lowest rate at 1.69.

The higher incidence of drone accidents is partly due to the new technology, according to Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit policy organization in Washington.

“There tend to be more mishaps and mistakes with any new technology, manned or unmanned,” Singer said in an e-mail. When the kinks get worked out and expertise builds, “crash rates tend to go down.”

Drone Hits Target

As the military flew drones in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere during the past decade, their accident rates declined to 5.13 per 100,000 flight hours in fiscal 2011 from 62.06 in fiscal 2001.

The Predator’s accident rate fell to 4.86 last year, compared with the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s 3.89 rate when the fighter jet was at the same point in its service life.

Unmanned planes also tend to be used in different ways than manned versions, Singer said. In Afghanistan, U.S. military personnel “were tracking a high-value target and didn’t have any missiles left,” he said. “So they flew the drone into the target.”

According to an Air Force definition, “a mishap is an unplanned occurrence, or series of occurrences.”

The drone that was destroyed after crashing into a swamp about 22 miles east of Naval Air Station Patuxent River last week was a Global Hawk, the largest and most expensive type of military drone, costing $233 million each. The Pentagon says it wants to spend $3.39 billion on unmanned aircraft in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Replacing U-2

The cause of the crash is still under investigation. Most drone accidents are caused by component failures or operator error.

The Global Hawk has an accident rate of 15.16 per 100,000 flight hours, almost three times that of the aircraft it’s designed to replace, the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane.

“It’s difficult to make direct comparisons between unmanned and manned systems regarding loss” because of their age and technological differences, Randy Belote, a spokesman for Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop, said in a telephone interview. “These systems fly much longer because you don’t have to land for crew comfort and safety.”

The Predator, made by General Atomics, has had 9.26 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, while its Reaper has had 7.96. Kimberly Kasitz, a spokeswoman for Poway, California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, declined to comment.

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