Saturday, June 21, 2014

FAA Needs to Prevent Drones Taking Over Our Skies After Disclosure of Crashes (Revised With Updated News)

As I’ve written about before, the prospect of opening American skies to drone flight is both reckless and inviting disaster. It’s bad enough we’ve had countless ‘near misses’  between ordinary aircraft in the skies the past few years and now the drone-fetishists want to risk direct collisions between these unstable, unmanned vehicles and commercial aircraft – endangering the lives of thousands.

While it's generally known that public opposition has centered on civil-liberties concerns, such as the morality and legality of using drones to spy on people in their back yards, there has been scant scrutiny of the safety record of remotely controlled aircraft. A report released June 5 by the National Academy of Sciences, however,  concluded that there were “serious unanswered questions” about how to safely integrate civilian drones into the national airspace, calling it a “critical, crosscutting challenge.

None of this would have been an issue had the drone manufacturing industry 3 yrs. ago, under the aegis of The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, (AUVSI)  the industry’s trade group in Washington, hadn't begun a full court press on our lily-livered congress to pass legislation allowing mass drone implementation.

The take was there was nothing to fret over. Michael Toscano, president of the AUVSI wasn't bothered as he argued in a 2012 interview that:

"“Car crashes kill 35,000 people a year, but we don’t talk about banning cars. We need to be honest about the costs and the benefits.”

Oh just terrific! So, as long as the drone -aircraft collisions don't snuff out more than the number perishing in automobile crashes, Toscano is just fine with them. And what exactly are the benefits? I dismissed these so-called benefits in my first blog about the issue:

Now, after a Washington Post investigation, we know there is much to worry about. While the air hazards of drones might have been speculation years ago, the findings by the Post shows concerns are very real and can’t be swept away by the drone fiends’ obsession with getting millions into the skies.

The findings? More than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001, a record of calamity that exposes the potential dangers of throwing open American skies to drone traffic. This according to a year long Post investigation.  (Let me say it is refreshing to see a Neoliberal paper getting back to investigative reporting of the type that originally made its name, i.e. with the exposure of the Watergate conspiracy in 1973).

According to the Post:

"Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons, according to more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

 Two hundred and twenty-four drones crashed in Class B accidents that, under current standards, cost between $500,000 and $2 million. Officials withheld basic details about those mishaps, such as the dates and locations, on the grounds that the lesser damage totals did not warrant a public investigation."  


Despite this, commercial drone flights are set to become a widespread reality but the basis for drone crashes has never been properly addressed. The inherent problems,  as noted by the Post report, include:

A limited ability to detect and avoid trouble. Cameras and high-tech sensors on a drone cannot fully replace a pilot’s eyes and ears and nose in the cockpit. Most remotely controlled planes are not equipped with radar or anti-collision systems designed to prevent midair disasters.

Pilot error. Despite popular perceptions, flying a drone is much trickier than playing a video game. The Air Force licenses its drone pilots and trains them constantly, but mistakes are still common, particularly during landings. In four cases over a three-year period, Air Force pilots committed errors so egregious that they were investigated for suspected dereliction of duty.

Persistent mechanical defects. Some common drone models were designed without backup safety features and rushed to war without the benefit of years of testing. Many accidents were triggered by basic electrical malfunctions; others were caused by bad weather. Military personnel blamed some mishaps on inexplicable problems. The crews of two doomed Predators that crashed in 2008 and 2009 told investigators that their respective planes had been “possessed” and plagued by “demons.”

Unreliable communications links. Drones are dependent on wireless transmissions to relay commands and navigational information, usually via satellite. Those connections can be fragile. Records show that links were disrupted or lost in more than a quarter of the worst crashes.


Among the models that crashed most often is the MQ-1 Predator, the Air Force drone manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, of San Diego. Almost half the Predators bought by the Air Force have been involved in a major accident, according to purchasing and safety data.  It is clear that the FAA must know of this, as it ought to know of incidents and defects with other drone craft. Given this it is also clear the FAA needs to be conservative in respect to mandating drone performance meet specific performance standards before turning millions loose in our skies.



The Post has noted that pent-up demand to buy and fly drones has engendered an obsession with getting them into the skies.  Law enforcement agencies, which already own a small number of camera-equipped drones, are projected to purchase thousands more; police departments covet them as an inexpensive tool to provide bird’s-eye surveillance for up to 24 hours straight. Businesses see profitable possibilities for drones, to tend crops, move cargo, inspect real estate or film Hollywood movies. Journalists have applied for drone licenses to cover the news. chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos wants his company to use autonomous drones to deliver small packages to customers’ doorsteps. Is there no end? Not really! Even ordinary folks want to get their own drones.


As I pointed out before, much of this pent up demand surfaced after our bought and sold out whore congress passed legislation giving in to the lobbyists of the drone makers. (The drone industry, which lobbied Congress to pass the new law, predicted $82 billion in economic benefits and 100,000 new jobs by 2025) . Not forecast is how many commercial air crashes are likely to occur if U.S. air space is opened up – which some estimate to be over 4 per year with hundreds of lives lost. Again, because of the inherent defects and instability of drone performance and lack of operator control - as detailed earlier.  In 2012 Medea Benjamin made reference to the spectacle of congressional corporate compliance and being bought out by the drone makers, as she said:
"They’ve been able to write the drone legislation and get their lackeys in Congress to push it through and get the president to sign it.”
In other words, the congressional rats and whores placed the bottom line of corporations over citizen welfare. But this is what we expect in a corporatocracy.   What's not a good thing is how our slimy congress critters actually think they can slide this crap right past our noses and make it stick. They all ought to be ashamed of themselves, but when laws are dictated by the corporate paymasters you know a once great Republic is already on its last legs
A prelude of what we’re in for if the FAA caves in is highlighted in one particular incident the Post discovered - when on Aug. 15, 2011, a C-130 Hercules weighing about 145,000 pounds was descending toward Forward Operating Base Sharana, in eastern Afghanistan. Suddenly, a quarter-mile above the ground, the huge Air Force plane collided with a 375-pound flying object.
Holy shit!” yelled the Hercules’s navigator, according to a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder. “We got hit by a UAV! Hit by a UAV!”
(A UAV is an ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’)

Not emphasized until now are the dozens of misses of commercial aircraft with drones, near major airports - highlighted in the FAA map below:
Photo: FAA Map showing locations of near collisions with drones at major airports.

These incidents include one in which a pilot descending into LaGuardia observed a drone with a 10 -15 foot wingspan above lower Manhattan. In another LA incident, two separate pilots reported a drone "the size of a trash can" perilously closeby.  The FAA was not able to pursue or identify the offenders because either "radar data was not available" or "the operators could not be identified." (Denver Post, 'Drone Close Calls', June 25th, p. 17A)   The Post notes that (p. 22A):

"The close calls were the latest in a rash of dangerous encounters between civilian aircraft and drones flown in contravention of FAA rules intended to safeguard U.S. airspace.."

Beyond that, the Post reports that "in 15 cases the past two years, drones flew dangerously close to airports or passenger aircraft" (including the incidents noted above in New York and LA.) The accumulating incidents so spooked one commercial pilot (Greg Cromer) that he actually wrote a letter to the FAA opposing the whole insane idea of opening U.S. airspace to these mechanical beasties, writing (ibid.):

"I can see no way to prevent a collision with something that could be as small as a bird or a plane or kitchen appliance."

In addition, "the NASA database confirms that dangerous brushes between drones and passenger aircraft are more common than the FAA acknowledges."  Is the FAA already co-opted and bought out? We hope to hell not!  According to the database, there've been 50 incidents since 2005, including potential disasters. Meanwhile, Chris Stephenson, an operations coordinator with the National Air Traffic Controllers' Association, described the pending integration of drones into national airspace as "a tsunami headed for the front porch". Other drone advocates (e.g. General Dynamics' Krista Ochs) are concerned with how the industry will be set back if and when the first major crashes with commercial airlines occur.  As she put it (ibid.):

"If we have a major catastrophe that involves some type of midair collision it could set us back years."

She has a point!
Since most congress critters are clearly  whores to the drone industry, the FAA is the last regulatory bulwark standing between sanity and opening our skies to a threat that will dwarf anything that terrorist acts could create. Our otherwise terror-obsessed lawmakers  could have acted with courage to prevent this but were too blinded by the immediate lure of commercial profit and responding  to the ubiquitous dog whistle of “jobs” . Is there no one who will stand his ground and say ‘No!’ Well, we had better hope the FAA does and doesn't mutate into another bought out agency - as many of us suspect.
If not, we the citizens need to get our game faces on, put away the smartphones, and get our congress critters to back away from this insanity! (By writing actual hard copy letters addressed to these mutts, in D.C.)   We’ve given away most of our civil liberties to feel temporarily “safe” after 9/11,  but are we also prepared to open the skies to even more sinister threats on the basis of expanding profits for drone manufacturers?
This will be a test of whether this nation is certifiably psychotic or in any way  residually rational.

I’d make a bet but I’m not confident of winning!  The power of money as "speech" obviously so far has trumped the voices (and votes) of citizens.
If my Revolutionary War ancestor Conrad Brumbaugh was alive he'd be aghast at how the Republic he visualized had descended into another aristocratic plutocracy - where the People can barely be heard above the media din and PR pushers.  As for the claim of money as "speech" he'd have likely taken his musket out and fired at anyone making such a whacked statement. (Conrad didn't suffer fools lightly!)
Let's hope we don't have to wait for dozens of mid-air collisions with drones or "UAVS" before reason finally re-asserts itself and stiff regulations keep drones limited in number and out of our skies -  until they can show all the performance defects are resolved.

1 comment:

GJ said...

Thank you for the article. With recent news about delivery drones, this is an even more urgent matter. In addition to the safety issue, I do not want the skies above me polluted by drones. Please inform me of any organized efforts to stop this from happening. Thanks, G. Jamin, San Francisco