Military drone crash data undermines MoD case to fly Protector drones in UK

Drone Wars is today publishing a new report reviewing large military drone crashes over the past decade.  Accidents Will Happen details over 250 crashes of large Predator-sized (NATO Class II and III) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) across the globe operated by a number of different countries, primarily the United States. The data is being released as UK airspace regulators are coming under pressure from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and industry lobbyists to open British airspace to such drones.

Although there has been public and parliamentary discussion about the impact on public safety and security of the increasing use of small drones (particularly since the incursions at Gatwick airport in late 2018), there has so far been little media or political discussion about the implications of opening up UK airspace to large military drones. However airspace regulators have serious concerns about the danger of operating unmanned systems alongside piloted aircraft.  Read more

Accidents Will Happen: A dataset of military drone crashes

Forensic experts investigate crash of US Predator near Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Feb, 2016. (Depo photos)

Drone Wars is today publishing a dataset of just over 250 large military drone crashes that have taken place over the past decade (2009-2018). The full dataset is available online here.  This post is a brief summary of the data but there is a great deal more detail in our accompanying report which is available here.

Although there continues to be some disagreement about the classification of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), most adhere to the NATO system which divides them into three broad categories based on weight. Read more

Watch out! Watchkeepers over Wiltshire

Watchkeeper UAV first flight in UK at MoD Aberporth. 14th April 2010.Drone Wars UK understands that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will announce on Monday (24 Feb) that live training flights of the Watchkeeper drone will begin over Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

The Watchkeeper drone has been developed under a £900m MoD contract by U-TacS,  a joint-venture company owned by Thales UK and Israeli company Elbit Systems.  Watchkeeper has now gained certification from the Military Aviation Read more

Implications of US drone lobby success beginning to dawn

The repercussions of the drone lobby’s success in forcing open US domestic airspace to unmanned drones by 2015 are beginning to be felt across the US as civil liberties groups and politicians wake up to the implications for safety and privacy.

An article on the Public Intelligence website asks the basic questions “Is it even logistically possible to operate thousands of pilot-less aircraft in domestic airspace?”  The authors examine two basic practical problems with unmanned drones.  Firstly how they tend to become “zombies” by losing their wireless data-link to the remote operator – and then crashing.   And secondly how without ‘sense and avoid’ capability drones are unable to avoid other aircraft and cause mid-air collisions.   In both cases the more drones that fly – and the FAA predict up to 30,000 drones will be flying in the US by the end of the decade – the more incidents of lost data links and mid-air collisions there will be.

While safety is rightly the primary concern, civil liberties issues are also seriously affected by the new legislation. Last week the co-chairs of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, Ed Markey & Joe Barton, wrote an open letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pointing out the “potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protection” and requesting information as to how the FAA were to address privacy concerns.

In particular the pair want to know

  • What privacy protections and public transparency requirements has the FAA built into its current temporary licensing process for drones used in U.S. airspace?
  • Is the public notified about where and when drones are used, who operates them, what data are collected, how are the data used, how long are they retained, and who has access to that data?
  • How does the FAA plan to ensure that drone activities under the new law are transparent and individual privacy rights are protected?
  • How will the FAA determine whether an entity applying to operate a drone will properly address these privacy concerns.”

A couple of days later an ‘op-ed’ piece in the Washington Post by two Brookings analysts also raised the privacy issue:

“The current legal framework with respect to observations from above by government is not particularly protective of privacy. Two of the most relevant Supreme Court cases, California v. Ciraolo in 1986 and Florida v. Riley in 1989, addressed law enforcement’s use of manned aircraft to perform surveillance of a suspect’s property. In both cases, the court held that observations made from “public navigable airspace” in the absence of a warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

These precedents suggest, in a world in which UAVs will be inexpensive and plentiful, that government operators might have broad legal latitude to use them for surveillance. Non-government operators may have even fewer constraints regarding surveillance. And today’s cameras are far more capable than those of the 1980s and can acquire stunning high-resolution imagery from hundreds of feet away — imagery that can be processed using ever more capable computers.”

However, the op-ed’s authors, John Villasenor and Ben Wittes also make the not unreasonable point that given “the challenges the agency will face in safely providing for the operation of what may soon be tens of thousands of UAVs, operated by tens of thousands of people from unconventional flight locations… to broaden its already unenviable task, to include this hotly disputed field [of privacy] that lies far from its core competency, is a recipe for bad and technologically uneven outcomes that will satisfy no one.”

The consequences of allowing unmanned drones to fly within domestic airspace both in terms of safety and privacy are beginning to be apparent to all.  That such a serious step should be taken in such a rush and under such pressure, simply  because of industry lobbying is ludicrous.   There needs to be a serious re-think, as well as an investigation into how companies with a vested industry were able to force through such a huge change with little apparent regard to the consequences.

Drone ‘beast’ captured in Iran – others rampage in Afghanistan and Gaza

RQ-170 Sentinel drone

There has been intense media coverage of the downing of a US drone in Iran over the past week.  Iran has previously claimed that it has shot down ‘Western drones’ (as we reported here) but they have never provided proof despite saying they would.

Initially the US denied any of their drone had been downed and then said that the drone may have been one lost in Afghanistan previously.  Within days  however the CIA was saying – through the usual ‘unnamed sources’ – that it was one of their drones that had crashed inside Iran.

The drone concerned is a RQ-170 Sentinel.  It was dubbed the ‘Beast of Kandahar’ when the then unknown drone was first spotted by the press in 2007 and 2009. It’s existence was officially confirmed – and its name officially revealed –  in late 2009. However little detail about the drone has been revealed.  All that is known about the drone is that it is stealthy, jet powered and unarmed.

The Beast - tamed

On December 8, Iranian TV showed  video footage of the drone and claimed that they had electronically hijacked it and brought it down.  This seems improbable and its far more likely the drone simply crash landed.  The fact that bottom of the drone was covered and it appeared to have no landing gear also points towards a crash.  When contact with a drone is lost, the drone is programmed to go into a holding pattern until contact is recovered.  Perhaps the drone did this until it simply ran out of fuel. However the drone, which flies at a high altitude, would have been much more damaged if it had crashed in this manner so many questions remain. Some have questioned whether the drone displayed by Iran was in fact a fake.

In a protest letter about the incursion of the drone on to it territory, Iran has called on the United Nations to condemn the  “violation of international rules by the U.S. government.”

Meanwhile other drone ‘beasts’ continue to rampage.  There has been two days of violence in Gaza following an Israeli drone strike.  According to the Irish Times “Gaza residents said a 42-year-old civilian was killed in an Israeli air strike on Hamas training facility. Seven members of the man’s family were wounded, including his father, wife and five of his children.”

And no doubt, US and UK drone strikes in Afghanistan continue completely unreported.  Time these drone ‘beasts’ were caged too.

Drones: PR, Proliferation and Prangs in the Pacific

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) have continued their excellent work exposing US drone strikes in Pakistan by publishing extensive new research.  According to their research, more than 160 children are among at least 2,292 people reported killed in US attacks since 2004.  In addition they suggest that there are credible reports of at least 385 civilians among the dead.   Full details including a searchable database of  drone strikes is available on thebureauinvestigates.com.

Clearly rattled, US officials have gone on the PR offensive and challenged the figures (AFP reported an anonymous US official saying “The  numbers cited by this organization are way off the mark”)  and US officals have also attempted to discredit the report by suggesting that a source, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who is suing the Central Intelligence Agency on behalf of civilians has an “agenda” and has ‘possible links with Pakistani Intelligence agencies’.    However a New York Times editorial on the drone strikes this weekend challenged the CIA’s claims that no civilians have been killed saying “We find that hard to believe”.  So do a great many people.

As well as the US military going on a PR offensive,  the drone industry too is trying to challenge the ‘killer drones’ image.  According to National Defense Magazine

“the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted a news conference at the National Press Club on August 10 to talk about the warm and fuzzy side of robotic machines [with] several executives on hand …to discuss the humanitarian roles of robotic equipment.”

As well as launching its PR offensive, AUVSI are trying to persuade the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to relax the rules on flying drones in civil airspace.  AUVSI are arguing that ‘limitations to UAV flight in U.S. airspace are hindering the industry’s growth and getting in the way of job creation.’  (We have previously reported on efforts to similarly persuade the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK.)  Privacy and safety it seems have no place to limit the ‘tremendous impact’ that lifting such “restrictions” would bring. By co-incidence It was announced this week that the FAA are investigating Rupert Murdoch’s  News Corps for using a drone in civilian airspace to film flooding in North Dakota.

Drone strikes andproliferation have continued over the past two weeks – notably a strike in Yemen on 1st August killed 15 people and a strike in North Waziristan killed over twenty people on 10th August. Press reports have also indicated that Italian Predator drones are also now flying missions over Libya.    Russia is about to show off its new combat drone, Lutch, at the Moscow airshow and the Welsh Government have been granted a certificate by the local planning authority to use the Llanbedr military airfield in Snowdonia to test and develop drones.   The Welsh government are freeholders of the site and are keen to lease it to Llanbedr Airfield Estates who wish to develop  the site.

There was much press coverage in the run-up to the test flight of DARPA’s new Hypersonic drone, the Falcon, last week, including this piece in the Guardian.  The Falcon drone, built by Lockheed Martin at a cost of about $320 million, is designed to fly at twenty times the speed of sound and undertake strikes anywhere in the world in less than one hour.  Red faces all around then when the test failed and the Falcon crashed into the Pacific.  Back to the drawing board!