Drones Already Crashing
There have been some confidence-busting problems with military systems, however, including the crash of a Navy drone onto Bloodsworth Island off the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Chesapeake Bay. The Patuxent River-based RQ-4A drone was no hand-launched glorified RC model, either. A derivative of the Air Force Global Hawk, the RQ-4A is 44 feet long with a wingspan of 117 feet. It is capable of flying at least as high as 50,000 feet. The one that crashed was part of the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program, and it’s been stingy with information about the accident. There were no injuries on the ground, nor any property damage, despite the fact that the burning wreckage covered an area the size of a football field.
Significantly, Bloodsworth Island is owned by the Navy, and no one lives there. It was used as a practice strafing target range starting in 1948 and up until the mid-1990s, so it’s possible the aircraft was directed there when it encountered problems. Capt. James Hoke, program manager for the Navy’s Persistent Maritime Unmanned Aircraft System Program office, said the drone was an older ex-Air Force Block 10 model. He said the type has had “reliability problems” but declined to go into the specifics of the failure, other than to say the problem was mechanical and was airframe-related.
Last December, an RQ-170 Sentinel stealth surveillance drone went down in Iran, 140 miles from its base. The United States claims the Lockheed Martin-built drone, operated by the Air Force for the Central Intelligence Agency, malfunctioned and its operators lost control of the craft. But Iran takes credit for busting the aircraft’s encryption code and bringing it down mostly intact, under its control. To date, there is no confirmation of either side’s version of the events. Earlier this year, Iran displayed a copy of the drone it says it has developed from the captured aircraft.
So-called “spoofing” of GPS signals has been a hot topic since the early 1990s, related not just to drones but also to any activity relying on GPS. The relatively weak signals are vulnerable to hackers who can override the satellite transmissions with false ones, making the onboard GPS receiver “think” it is somewhere it isn’t — and direct an unmanned vehicle accordingly. Military drones, including the RQ-170 Sentinel, have heavily encrypted GPS and control receivers designed to thwart spoofing, but BAE Systems has come up with yet another backup plan, which could be incorporated into civilian drones to ensure they are not “hijacked.”
It’s called Navigation via Signals of Opportunity (NAVSOP), and some argue it could even replace GPS. NAVSOP eavesdrops and collates existing transmissions such as Wi-Fi, television, radio and cell phone signals to triangulate the receiver’s position, reportedly to within a few meters. According to BAE, “Even the signals from the GPS jammers can be exploited by the device to aid navigation under certain conditions.”
These two incidents have done little to reassure skeptics of the so-called “loss of control” technology that is proposed for certifying UAS operating in U.S. national airspace system. Should radio control be interrupted, the UAS is programmed to immediately squawk a dedicated transponder code so ATC will be instantly aware of the situation. It will also trigger onboard navigation computers to steer a predetermined course to safe, uninhabited airspace. Meanwhile, forward- and side-looking sensors are designed to detect any “targets” that are not visible to controllers, or that otherwise fall through the cracks. The technology is based on the most advanced military guidance and control equipment, and manufacturers contend that the technology is continually developing. Still, the lack of a human pilot – who could react and improvise outside the black box – has critics skeptical that they could feel secure sharing airspace with drones.
From the rush of activity emanating from Capitol Hill, FAA headquarters and the industry, it is clear there is a strong push to mandate integration of unmanned aircraft into our airspace on an ambitious schedule. The industry group appears committed to doing what it can to ensure the safety and moral integrity of the process. Admitting that he is one himself, Toscano said, “Bureaucrats are like witches. There are good ones, and there are bad ones.” Between now and the deadline for full implementation in about three years, pilots will be watching closely to judge which category he fits, and whether or not they trust the technology to safely separate our aircraft — the ones with windows — from those without.
What remains to be seen is whether the politics can keep up with the technology as it exists today, and whether the NextGen technology of tomorrow will arrive in time to safely separate our aircraft — the ones with windows — from those without.