While unmanned drones have become a popular weapon of choice during the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new report reveals that hundreds of them have been involved in major accidents around the world.
Following an investigation into more than 50,000 pages of federal and military records, the Washington Post found that more than 400 large American drones have crashed since 2001, with almost half of the accidents each causing millions of dollars in damages.
The news also highlights the potential risks of opening up American airspace to commercial, police, and military drone use, as the Federal Aviation Administration plans to in 2015. The government has argued its testing sites will allow for the safe use of domestic drones, particularly since warzone conditions won’t be replicated on American soil, but the recent data shows there are still significant hurdles to overcome.
According to the Washington Post, no one has died as a result of a drone accident, but many times the disaster was avoided simply by chance or a difference of a few feet. The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have crashed into homes, farms, roads, and even, in one case, an Air Force plane in midair.
Through various Freedom of Information Act requests, it was revealed that the military classifies its drone accidents in two different categories: Class A and B. Class A is made up of 194 drone accidents, each of which either destroyed the aerial vehicle involved or resulted in at least $2 million in damage. More than half of these accidents took place in Afghanistan and Iraq, but nearly 25 percent were in the US.
Class B accidents, meanwhile, caused anywhere between $500,000 and $2 million in damages. There have been 224 of these incidents in total.
These records do not, however, include data on the drones operated by the CIA, which employs 30 of its own Predator and Reaper drones.
Although the reasons for accidents vary from one situation to another, the majority of the them occurred in warzones, while the US was still adapting to drone technology. Since 2009, the Class A accident rate for the Predator model has been 4.79 crashes per 100,000 flight hours – that’s down markedly from 13.7 in the drone’s first decade or so of its existence.
The Air Force stated that the Reaper’s accident rate over the last five years (3.17), meanwhile, is gradually nearing the same rate of the F-16 (1.96) and F-15 (1.47).
“Flying is inherently a dangerous activity. You don’t have to look very far, unfortunately, to see examples of that,” said Dyke Weatherington, director of unmanned warfare for the Pentagon, to the Post. “I can look you square in the eye and say, absolutely, the [Defense Department] has got an exceptional safety record on this and we’re getting better every day.”
Still, there are multiple areas which drone operators need to address before flying the UAVs can be considered more secure. Although they are equipped with cameras and other sensors, it’s still difficult for pilots to notice trouble ahead before its too late. Most drones do not feature radar or anti-collision systems, making them vulnerable to mishaps while airborne.