As U.S. skies have opened up to drones in recent years, concerns about civil liberties have come to the fore, but as the fiery crash of a mammoth unmanned Navy surveillance drone in the Chesapeake Bay a year ago demonstrated, safety is cause for concern as well.
A Navy investigation, reported here for the first time, has concluded that the June 11, 2012, crash was caused by a combination of a mechanical failure and pilot error. A breakdown in the aircraft’s rudder mechanism compounded by the failure of a civilian pilot to follow emergency procedures sent the Global Hawk drone, with a wingspan of 131 feet, spiraling into remote wetlands in southern Maryland.
The Global Hawk, a 22,982-pound aircraft, spiraled downward at a 55-degree angle reaching a speed in excess of 2,000 feet per minute. Carrying more than 11,000 pounds of fuel, the drone burst into flames upon impact. The crash destroyed the $176 million vehicle, but caused no property damage or injuries and caused “minimal” environmental damage, the report foundThe Navy report, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, illuminates the safety challenges posed by increased of use of drones in U.S. airspace. With the military’s use of drones growing rapidly, training exercises in the United States are also expanding. While the report credits the pilot, a civilian employed by Northrop Grumman, with steering the malfunctioning aircraft away from a populated area, Navy Cmdr. C.P. Ramsden said the pilot error as the rudder system broke down could have led to disaster.