Raining drones?
An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper prepares to land
December 30th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Raining drones?

By CNN National Security Producer Jennifer Rizzo

When the highly classified RQ-170 Sentinel drone crashed in Iran recently, there were many questions about how this could happen. Then, a few days later, a Predator drone crashed on the island nation of Seychelles. Are drones falling out of the sky?

These recent high-profile crashes of U.S. drones raise questions about the reliability of the crucial unmanned aircraft.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have about the same mishap rate as the F-16 manned fighter jet did at a comparable stage of development, according to retired Lt. Gen David Deptula, who ran the Air Force drone program until he left the service in 2010.

An Air Force chart obtained by CNN confirms Deptula's assessment, showing as flight time increases, mishap rates for drones drop, just like they do for the piloted F-16 and F-22 fighter jets.

When looking at the total number of flight hours, the mishap rates for "Predators (MQ-1s) are a bit higher," said Deptula. "Reapers (MQ-9s) and Global Hawks (RQ-4) are a bit lower."

Predator drones fly at medium to high altitudes and were initially designed for gathering intelligence. They have since been modified to carry munitions such as Hellfire missiles.

Reapers are similar to Predators and carry Hellfire missiles, but they are larger and more powerful. Up to three times faster than the Predator, Reapers are designed to go after time-sensitive targets, according to the Air Force.

The Global Hawk is a high-flying, unmanned aircraft that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Its long endurance allows it to stay in flight longer than any manned or unmanned aircraft. The unarmed Global Hawk collects pictures and video of the ground, and some versions have the ability to do electronic eavesdropping.

All drones are not created equal. Some have different crash rates, just as manned systems do, according to drone expert Peter Singer. And, like manned craft, crash rates diminish as the technology advances.

"The crash rates tend to go down the longer that they've been in service," said Singer. "The newer the system the more technical problems, the more we don't know about its particulars, the more kinks that have to be worked out."

And after almost a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has gotten an enormous amount of drone flight experience, improving their reliability, according to weapons expert John Pike.

"They've gotten a lot better," said Pike. "For a long time drones were halfway between aircraft and ammo. Aircraft usually comes back and ammo never comes back."

Drones are also often flown in circumstances that a piloted aircraft would not be sent - into hostile territory for example, or in bad weather.

"We have used them in some ways that we wouldn't use manned systems, so to compare them wouldn't be a perfect fit," said Singer.

In certain instances U.S. forces may even intentionally down a drone, according to Singer, who has served as a consultant for the Defense Department.

Singer wouldn't elaborate further but was able to cite examples: flying a drone until it runs out of gas to provide an eye over soldiers on missions, or turning it into a kamikaze-type weapon to hit a high-value target.

"You sometimes put them into situations that you might not put a manned system in," said Singer. "Or in certain situations, you decide to crash them, lose them, destroy them in a way that wouldn't be on the table with a manned system."

A deliberate loss of a UAV would count in the accident rates.

In fiscal year 2010, the last year with available data, there were eight major "Class A" drone crashes, according to the Air Force Safety Center. The Air Force refers to "Class A" mishaps as accidents that result in fatality or total permanent disability, loss of an aircraft, or property damage of $2 million or more.

Some of these crashes involved major technical glitches.

In September 2010, a Predator crashed in Afghanistan's mountains after an oil system malfunction caused a catastrophic leak leading to engine failure, according to an Air Force accident report.

In November 2009, a "catastrophic" electrical system failure in a Predator drone flying in Afghanistan caused the aircraft to lose contact with the flight crew and eventually crash.

But despite the high-tech nature of the aircraft, not all crashes are technical mishaps. Early versions of the Predator drones were fair-weather fliers and were prone to crashing in icy conditions. Now, de-icing systems have been added to the UAVs.

"Many of the (crash) cases have nothing to do with the fact that it's high technology. It has to do with the fact that it's new technology and they have to work out the kinks," Singer said.

Then there's the human factor. In 2010 a Predator drone crashed northeast of Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan after the remote pilot pushed an incorrect button.

In August 2010 a Reaper crashed in California as part of a training exercise. The investigation found that the drone's pilot improperly controlled the aircraft's speed, causing it to stall. The same month, a Predator crashed shortly after takeoff near Joint Base Balad in Iraq when the drone's pilot forgot to turn on a system that keeps the aircraft stable.

Drones can "fly longer than any single human operator can take," said Singer.

The Air Force made reference to this challenge in a recent study that looked into the psychological attributes a drone pilot needs to be successful on the job.

"It is also important to note many MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper squadrons are engaged in demanding shift work that can lead to mental fatigue, affecting cognitive performance," the study said.

In October 2009 a Predator drone met its demise after a crew succumbed to the pressure of a war zone. The drone was on a reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan when the crew received directions to provide close air support to U.S. and Afghan ground forces that were under heavy attack. The drone crews were "consumed with a high-degree of urgency," according to an Air Force report, and did not pay enough attention to the mountainous terrain. Not flying the drone high enough caused the Predator to crash.

So what happened to the highly sophisticated RQ-170 Sentinel that crashed in Iran?

Flying at altitudes up to 50,000 feet and designed to evade sophisticated air defenses, the RQ-170 is "impossible to see," one former intelligence official told CNN. The official discounted Iranian claims that it had been brought down by some form of electronic countermeasures. Other analysts have agreed that a cyber attack would have been unlikely.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said emphatically that Iran had nothing to do with the fate of the aircraft, but that there was "a technical problem that was our problem, nobody else's problem."

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soundoff (62 Responses)
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  10. NYC Fitness Event

    Is this the CIA or Our Gov't covering their butts?
    "One former intelligence official told CNN. The official discounted Iranian claims that it had been brought down by some form of
    electronic countermeasures. Other analysts have agreed that a cyber attack would have been unlikely."
    Either way interesting post!

    January 31, 2014 at 10:24 am | Reply
  11. Bubba

    These recent high-profile crashes of U.S. drones raise questions about the reliability of the crucial unmanned aircraft.

    The REAL question is why we are flying these drones over so many countries? Only a matter of time when they are flying over us.

    January 17, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Reply
  12. Daniel

    For some reason I can't imagine the drone shown as being legit. To many ripples, even if it had crashed. I don't think they got control of it either, it uses encrypted satellite transmissions.
    The two options I can see are it was given to them, for some other purpose, or as they said it was a malfunction. There was an article that said it had found the crash site but it had been destroyed, and then that article disappeared.
    To be honest, the control and encrypted transmission systems would be of most value. The radar absorbing material second, albet the overall design has a low radar signature. I would be surprised to see it as intact as it is, these are designed to be light weight and not bullet proof at all. Of course if it blows up in front of their government band stand during a parade then we will know it's true purpose...

    January 3, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Reply
  13. sissyphuz

    Self destructing mechanism – check! oh wait.. yup forgot to put that one on the blueprint. Ugh.. Fail

    January 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  14. Laisse-Faire in Lake City

    Why is it assumed it would be sold to China? If there was anything on it that was detrimental to National Security, we would have gotten it back or destroyed it's inner workings by now. Also, if we send in a 'Seal' team to take care of the situation, we're going to just put ourselves in further hot water with foreign countries that aren't to fond of us to begin with. Remarks made by our Rep. Presidential hopefuls about Kim Jung-Il resting in a cold place in hell, good riddance to him, ect ect, and making threats to Iran about their nuclear program (whether it be weaponization or for scientific studies)is making America look like the back woods hicks that people frequently poke fun at. We won't be able to build relationships with more foregin governments if we continue this way.
    All of this is of course, my most humble opinion.

    January 2, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  15. pooh2

    It should be cool to pilot a drone, but I do not think I would be able to concentrate on it for hours. These guys must be made of different material, who can do it,

    January 1, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  16. devin leonard

    Iran's claims of "taking down our drone" were always false. And I doubt they can do much with the one they have. Iran couln't backward engineer a lego set, so how are they going to backward engineer a stealth drone!

    January 1, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  17. g.r.r.

    Of course, the RQ-170 was not crashed. No bullets. No hits. PERFECT LANDING. So, something else is amiss. Something VERY foul. Even more is the fact that we are hiding information about it.

    January 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
    • Stocks56756

      I agree G.r.r. I bet we are fighting for control over the drones in midflight when the controls are intercepted by Iran and that is why they are crashing. It is also explains how they got one without a crash landing. Didn't anyone see the news blurb a few months ago on CNN that some folks in the middle east were shadowing out key movements to fly the drones, and that we lost contact with the drone for a minute or so. Put the pieces together folks.

      January 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  18. aflong2005

    since when did a class A become 2 mil? i heard there was talk of change but hadn't heard it had yet...

    January 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  19. Yakobi

    Drone for president 2012!

    January 1, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
    • crusader12

      Anybody but Ron Paul and you will get your wish. Drone controlled by big money invested in oil and national defense.

      January 18, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  20. jorge washinsen

    That drone is still sitting there sending information.

    January 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • Markpb2006

      No it's not.

      January 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  21. Reasonable1

    Drones are needed to teach moral values to m u s l i m s. Drones serve humanity remotely. Drones should be nominated for Nobel Peace Prize.

    January 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • Jim8

      You are a Republican, aren't you? Life isn't that simple.

      January 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
      • Flyboy7588

        And you'er one of the knuckleheads who voted for Obama and are complicit in his destruction of our country. Get your head out of your @ss this November Jimmy.

        January 17, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • crusader12

      haha..moral values like raping 14-year-olds and peeing on dead bodies. Love American morals, America Overall!

      January 18, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  22. mm

    I really believe that the drone that went down in Iran was deliberate and not an accident. This was nothing more than a delivery of sorts. We know that China will want to get their hands on this technology so why not give them some junk to keep them busy for a few years trying to replicate something that is flawed. More or less throw them off track for a while.

    January 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • Jason

      The Iranians did a sophisticated counter to bring down the RQ-170 Sentinel buy saturation of the airspace with a bogus GPS signal. This broke the satellite control signal and by default, the drone relied on GPS coordinates to fly and land in Iran. A big surprise but, an obvious flaw when considered the results. This will be an opportunity to modify the existing fleet to avoid the same fate.

      January 1, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
    • g.r.r.

      I have wondered about the same thing. I certain pray that is the case. But I seriously doubt it.

      January 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
    • Jon

      I am currently taking a UAV class and my instructor has the idea that the U.S. puposely planted a timed bug in the outdated drone so when downloaded, would cause havok on their computer systems. What a prize!

      February 12, 2012 at 3:08 am | Reply
  23. Cassandra Chu

    ... and how many of those deaths were killed by "friendly fire"... ?

    January 1, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
    • intheknow

      Not many. Infact, very few.

      January 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  24. ram

    I dreamed last night that Mexico will start chasing down dope smugglers in the border states of america with drones and will destroy them and their dope and their friends and families and any other collateral placements. They do not expect to have any problems with the us government since they are chasing down a common enemy. Collaboration, cooperation and friendly fire deaths will not be an issue. I woke up with a smile.

    December 31, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Reply

    MILLIONS TO BE ASSASSINATED FOR THE SAKE OF $$$ LIABILITIES(mk-ultra, chip implants, electroshocks etc. performed on them) AND NEW WORLD ORDER(multiculturalism = terrorism) POLITICAL AGENDA KNOWN AS "YOU ARE NEXT"(financial liabilities are 2 expensive for the government and it is cheaper to get read of you instead) !!! IF YOU WERE TREATED WITH ELECTROSHOCKS OR DRUGS USED FOR WIPING OUT MEMORY(numerous Americans and Europeans were and are) AFTER ENDURING FORCED CHIP IMPLANTS(or to simply rethard individual), YOU ARE SCHEDULED AT 100% RATE AS GOOD TO GO NEXT(where do you think all homeless people come from or rather who/how creates them !!?) !!!






    http://www.youtube.com/user/BostjanAvsec <== OBAMA'S HEALTH CARE RECORDED LIVE IN 2009 !!! These are hard facts about lunatic Obama/Bush's twilight zone administrations(HORROR) or genocide against whites per ZIONIST Washington DC and in complete agreement with communist Moscow !!!


    December 31, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Reply
    • RA16897089

      Are you completely wacko or an ememy of the State?

      January 1, 2012 at 10:39 am | Reply
      • Jim in Georgia

        Been out a long time have you?

        January 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Cassandra Chu

      ... there really is an MK ULTRA program going on at the Colorado School of Mines. pretty sick stuff.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
      • g.r.r.

        Really Cassie? Please put in details. You will not because you have nothing.

        January 1, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Spence

      What a remarkable load of c r a p.

      January 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  26. blah

    A) its not a major lost if it gets reverse engineered.
    B) they cant have self destruct systems in them, they are slated to fly for 25-30 years and that just isn't feisable or safe to have explosives in the airframe for that long.
    C) the iranians can't do anything with it, they are having a hard time building simple power plants, solid state silicon tech is 200 years in the future for them, fine let them sell it to china, if china was smart they would just buy one directly from us, at least it wouldn't be busted upon delivery.

    face it this isnt that big of deal, like all electronics it had a hiccup and happened to float down in iranian territory. i do however believe we should have imeadiately sent in a seal team after it just as a show of force to the iranians. i mean they are causing enough drama nows the time to put our foot down, give us our sh!t back iran.

    December 31, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Reply
    • um

      um, you're kind of an idiot if you think we'd sell an RQ-170 to china

      December 31, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
    • RA16897089

      The hardware is not the problem, it's the electronic's inside that is worth anything. You can well bet that there is a failsafe system that frys the electronics if we have loss of signal for x amount of minutes or the aircraft receives a self distruct command. Self Distruct can do many things other than exploding. Most folks do not realize that even the Space Shuttle was wired for and could be sent a self distruct command when it took off at Cape Kennedy every time it took off. This was to protect land sites in case of catastrophic failure. When the Challenger made it's last flight and after lox tank exploded the two solids were sent the command and the tops were blown off which made them inert. That is a little off subject but we do not need to send explosives on Drones, electronic self distruct is all that is necessary.

      January 1, 2012 at 10:46 am | Reply
      • Toasty

        Yes, but if we use explosives, we could blow it up while enemy leaders are nearby :3
        But yeah, a little thermite or a surge inducer is all that would really be necessary for a self-destruct mechanism.

        January 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  27. Carl

    The fact that the drone was not programmed to self-destruct is a grave design error and somebody should be held responsible. We shouldn't be donating technology to Iran.

    December 31, 2011 at 7:12 am | Reply
  28. Omair Mahmood

    According to a study published by Reuters, drone operators (read killers) are showing signs of "clinical distress". I think mother nature is taking its toll.

    December 30, 2011 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • dreamer96

      They were watching fellow Americans under attack, being killed, badly wounder, in real time, that effects anybody..

      December 30, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Reply
  29. dreamer96

    These drones have the obvious advantage that no matter how bad the malfunction, or crash, the pilot walks away,...that's better than any manned aircraft..and much better then the AV 8 Harrier....

    We have lost high tech aircraft before...Stalin built the TU-4, based on our B-29, that had to make emergency landings in the Soviet Union, took years to copy and when they finally went into production, we were still years ahead of them, and TU-144, and TU-144D, based on stolen plans for the British Concorde, both TU's crashed and never went into production...

    December 30, 2011 at 9:40 am | Reply
  30. Sayan Majumdar

    "a technical problem that was our problem, nobody else's problem."

    Sure, yet the Chinese will be too eager to lay their hands on RQ-170 Sentinel captured fairly intact. To them it is an unprecedented opportunity to study and subsequently reverse engineer.


    December 30, 2011 at 6:56 am | Reply

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