Not a good day for unmanned aircraft: US Customs grounds fleet

Crash in Pacific Ocean grounds US Customs nine other unmanned aircraft

general atomics Predator
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection service said today it had grounded its nine remaining unmanned aircraft after one of them was forced to ditch in the Pacific Ocean.

According to CNN, the unmanned aircraft had an unknown mechanical failure while on patrol off the southern California coast. The crew determined that it wouldn't make it back to Sierra Vista, Arizona, "and put the aircraft down in the water," the agency said in a statement.

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The unmanned aircraft was reported to be a $12 million Predator B aircraft which the agency said is powered by a turboprop engine and designed as a long-endurance, high-altitude system aimed at a variety of applications from reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting, and weapons delivery to scientific research.

Crash rates of the Predator aircraft have been disputed over time but they clearly need to be watched carefully, most observers say as they are one of the largest systems that could more commonly fly in US airspace in the future.  Its close relative the Reaper is larger and had had its own share of crashes.

A Washington Post report on drone crashes noted in 2012 there had been "rash of U.S. military drone crashes at overseas civilian airports in the past two years. The accidents reinforce concerns about the risks of flying the robot aircraft outside war zones, including in the United States. A review of thousands of pages of unclassified Air Force investigation reports, obtained by The Washington Post under public-records requests, shows that drones flying from civilian airports have been plagued by setbacks. Among the problems repeatedly cited are pilot error, mechanical failure, software bugs in the "brains" of the aircraft and poor coordination with civilian air-traffic controllers."

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