Drone Ditching Said to Show Need for Care on Unmanned Aircraft

By Alan Levin and Jeff Plungis | January 31, 2014

The ditching of a government surveillance drone off the California coast shows the U.S. must move cautiously on integrating unmanned aircraft into the skies, a pilots’ union leader said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection grounded its fleet of nine remaining drones used to monitor borders and ports after operators had to guide an unmanned aircraft into the Pacific Ocean after a mechanical failure Jan. 27.

droneThe accident renewed debate over how swiftly the government should bring unmanned aircraft into the aviation system and how tight the safety standards should be. The Federal Aviation Administration is working on standards for civilian drones, which are now banned in U.S. airspace, and has approved six test sites.

“It creates a more complex problem than just pointing it out to sea,” Sean Cassidy, national safety coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Association, said in an interview.

The loss of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Predator B shows the issues the FAA must consider if drones will be allowed to fly within a few miles of airliners, Cassidy, who is also first vice president of the largest pilots’ union in North America, said.

The Predator went into the Pacific Ocean about 11:15 p.m. local time on Jan. 27 around 20 miles southwest of San Diego, Michael Friel, an agency spokesman, said in an e-mail yesterday. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, Keith Holloway, a spokesman, said in an interview.

The crew operating the drone, which was modified for maritime environments, put it into the water after determining it couldn’t reach its Sierra Vista, Arizona, base, Friel said.

‘Cause Unknown’

“The cause of the failure is unknown,” he said. “There were no injuries as a result of this emergency landing.”

Because the FAA hasn’t drafted regulations allowing routine unmanned-aircraft use, government agencies can only operate drones if they receive special permits.

CBP uses its aircraft to patrol both U.S. coasts and the borders with Mexico and Canada, Jenny Burke, a spokeswoman, said in an interview.

The Predator B, also known as the MQ-9 Reaper in the U.S. Air Force, can fly as many as 27 hours and reach an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), according to the website of Poway, California-based General Atomics. It has a wingspan of 66 feet (20 meters) and can carry more than 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms) of cameras, weapons or other payload, according to the company. Each Predator costs about $18 million.

Safety Debate

General Atomics deferred comment to CBP, Kimberly Kasitz, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. At least some of the aircraft was recovered from the water while a U.S. Coast Guard cutter stood watch, Petty Officer Connie Terrell said in an interview.

The NTSB, which determines the cause of aviation accidents, has assigned an agency specialist in unmanned aircraft to the case, Holloway said. The FAA will assist.

The pilots’ union understands that the drone industry is growing rapidly and will inevitably find its place in the skies alongside passenger planes, Cassidy said. The union doesn’t want the introduction of unmanned aircraft to threaten the improving safety of airline operations, he said.

“If you are going to meet that same high safety bar, it means you better be very careful, very deliberative,” he said.

ALPA supports requiring drone pilots to be licensed by the FAA. It also has called on the FAA to certify the safety of drone designs as it does manned aircraft.

‘No Big Deal’

Others said the Predator accident doesn’t necessarily signal the need to move slowly.

“I don’t really see this as a big deal,” Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, said in an e-mail.

Aircraft such as the Predator, which have no humans aboard and were designed for military use, shouldn’t have to meet the same safety standards as a commercial aircraft, she said.

After a Customs Predator B crashed into a hillside near Nogales, Arizona, on April 25, 2006, the NTSB concluded an operator inadvertently shut off the plane’s engine while trying to deal with a radio-link failure.

Investigators found that the Predator’s pilot, who was supposed to be monitored by an instructor, had been allowed to fly it by himself. The operator, a General Atomics employee, didn’t follow the company’s procedures for addressing radio- control issues, the NTSB found.

‘Minimal Oversight’

“The investigation also revealed that the CBP was providing a minimal amount of operational oversight,” NTSB said in its findings.

FAA air-traffic controllers typically restrict Customs drone flights to areas where piloted aircraft are banned.

The agency’s drone operations were faulted for safety shortfalls in a 2012 report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.

Two of the four ground stations from which CBP operated Predators didn’t have the backup control equipment required in its operations handbook, according to the report. A third station received a waiver to fly without the backup equipment, according to the report.

Customs, in response to the report, said it intended to increase funding to support the flight operations.

(Editors: Bernard Kohn, Elizabeth Wasserman)

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