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The Air Force Can't Figure Out How to Stop Its Drones From Falling Out of the Sky

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The US Air Force already has a drone-pilot shortage, but that’s not the only problem with its fleet of unmanned aircraft: Its drones keep falling out of the sky.

The Washington Post obtained accident investigation documents that reveal the extent of the Air Force’s drone woes. The Reaper, which is the favored drone for airstrikes, sounds like a lemon:

Ten Reapers were badly damaged or destroyed in 2015, at least twice as many as in any previous year, according to Air Force safety data.

The Reaper’s mishap rate — the number of major crashes per 100,000 hours flown — more than doubled compared with 2014. The aircraft, when fully equipped, cost about $14 million each to replace.


The Predator—the older, crappier version of the Reaper—isn’t doing much better, with ten crashes last year as well.

Why does the Reaper keep crashing? The Post describes the aircraft’s problem as “a rash of sudden electrical failures.” Air Force Col. Brandon Baker described what happens when a Reaper runs out of its backup battery:

“Once the battery’s gone, the airplane goes stupid and you lose it,” said Col. Brandon Baker, chief of the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft capabilities division. “Quite frankly, we don’t have the root cause ironed out just yet.”


Keep in mind that four Reaper aircraft cost the Air Force around $64 million in 2006. This isn’t a DJI shitting the bed. This is a defensive fiasco, and one the Pentagon has been hiding as much as possible:

Although the Defense Department has a policy to disclose all major aircraft mishaps, it did not publicly report half of the 20 Reaper and Predator accidents last year.

In five other cases, U.S. military officials provided confirmation only after local authorities reported the crashes or enemy fighters posted photos of the wreckage on social media.

But can they fix it, at least? Uh—no.

Investigators have traced the problem to a faulty starter-generator, but have been unable to pinpoint why it goes haywire or devise a permanent fix.


Very comforting.


[Washington Post]

Image: Air Force