The U.S. military’s three biggest drones are the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force fleet, reports Brendan McGarry of Bloomberg. The RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones have had a combined 9.31 accidents for every 100,000 hours of flying, giving unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) an accident rate that is more than triple the fleet-wide average of 3.03, according to military data compiled by Bloomberg Government (BGOV).
A Global Hawk crashed on the shores of Maryland on June 11.
Jay Stanley, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), echoed concerns made by members of Congress that the use of drones without transparency or accountability may threaten both the privacy and security of Americans.
“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.
The Air Force recorded 129 accidents involving Predators, Reapers or Global Hawks in a 15-year period through September 30. Vertical-lift aircraft, including helicopters and the V-22 Osprey, had the second highest accident rate with 6.33 per 100,000 flight hours.
Most drone accidents are caused by component failures or operator error. Even smaller drones are susceptible to malfunction, as seen by the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone that went down in Iran.
Privacy is an automatic concern because the Air Force has acknowledged that if any drones in domestic skies should accidentally capture footage of Americans, “military intelligence has the right to study it to determine whether the subjects are legitimate targets of domestic surveillance.”
Furthermore, transparency of domestic surveillance is a problem as Spencer Ackerman of Wired reports that when Congress asked the National Security Agency how many persons inside the U.S. they have been spied upon, the NSA replied that answering that question “would further violate the privacy of U.S. persons” and the number was “beyond the capacity” of the NSA to count.
The high incidence of drone accidents is partly due to new technology, as the accident rates of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan declined to 5.13 per 100,000 flight hours in fiscal 2011 from 62.06 in fiscal 2001.
The Global Hawk has an overall accident rate of 15.16 per 100,000 flight hours, followed by the Predator (9.26) and the Reaper (7.96). McGarry notes that after 15 years, the Predator accident rate for 2011 of 4.86 is outpacing the F-16 Fight Falcon’s rate of 3.89 when the fight jet was at the same point in its service life.
The global drone market is expected to nearly double over the next 10 years from nearly $6 billion annually to more than $11 billion (with police departments accounting for a significant part of that growth).
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