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Drone Flies Blind Near D.C.

Navy loses control of UAV for 20 minutes


August 26, 2010 — The Navy says “a software issue” caused it to lose contact with one of its MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV helicopters for about 20 minutes during the afternoon of August 2, 2010, allowing the pilot-less drone aircraft to fly itself 23 miles into the restricted airspace surrounding Washington, D.C., according to a story first reported by The New York Times this week. The aircraft, manufactured by Northrop Grumman, measures nearly 24 ft long, 9 ft high and has a gross weight of 3,150 lbs.

According to Capt. Tim Dunigan, Fire Scout program manager, the helicopter was at 1,700 feet AGL 75 minutes into a test flight from its base, Naval Air Station Pax River in Southern Maryland, when operators temporarily lost communications with the unmanned rotary aircraft.

“The MQ-8 Fire Scout experienced lost link and proceeded 23 miles north/northwest out of Pax River, still about 40 miles south of DC area in northern St. Mary's county, Maryland, into National Capital Region airspace,” he said. “The operator team shifted to other Ground Control Station, restoring link and successfully commanding vehicle to recover at Webster Field. The aircraft returned to Webster Field safely without injuries, and without damage to the aircraft or vessel.”

There were no military or civilian traffic conflicts during the communications loss that required an aircraft deviation, Dunigan said.

He added that the MQ-8B Fire Scout has flown more than 1,000 flight hours since December 2006. “During this routine test flight, we found a software anomaly that allowed aircraft not to follow its preprogrammed flight procedures. We have identified the issue and have aircraft operating restrictions that will prevent this from happening again.” A software modification has also been developed to remove this anomaly, he added.

NAVAIR's Fire Scout program office has suspended flight operations of MQ-8B aircraft pending results of a thorough investigation. “We are in the final stages of the investigation and plan on briefing leadership next week,” Dunigan said. “We anticipate resuming flight operations in early September.”

This incident provides interesting context to the ongoing debate about FAA policy regarding UAV activity in the National Airspace System. EAA has contacted the FAA seeking further information.

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