The U.S. Navy has admitted that it lost control of a helicopter drone during a test flight in Maryland earlier this month, leaving it to fly unguided for more than 30 minutes and 23 miles and violating Washington's restricted airspace. The drone's operators eventually regained control and got the drone safely back to base. The Navy tells the New York Times that a "software issue" caused the snafu.
The drone, a Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Navy Fire Scout, is supposed to have a failsafe system that directs it to land safely if it loses its communication link with the controller on the ground. That obviously didn't happen on the drone's Aug. 2 flight, and it made a beeline from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland, where it was being tested, toward Washington. It was roughly 40 miles from the capital before the Navy regained control.
All six of the Navy's Fire Scouts have been grounded while naval investigators figure out what happened. According to the Times, the drones are used for surveillance, and one was instrumental in the Coast Guard interdiction of 60 kilos of cocaine off tCentral America last spring.
It's unclear how frequently drones fly in U.S. skies. Some local police departments have already begun using them for law enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security began using drones to monitor the border with Mexico in June. Many cities — and drone manufacturers — are pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to update its rules and allow for wider use in the United States.
They might want to figure out how to keep them from going renegade and striking out for the nation's capital first. According to the Los Angeles Times, drones in Iraq and Afghanistan have an uncommonly high failure rate, with at least 79 accidents so far at an average cost of $1 million per incident. If nothing else, the specter of a directionless, bug-ridden drone approaching White House airspace should prompt President Obama to think twice before reprising his controversial White House Correspondents Dinner joke about using Predator drones on the Jonas Brothers if they try to get fresh with first daughters Sasha and Malia.
(Photo: Northrop Grumman)