US Keeps Losing Control of Its Drones

Funny how these drones keep experiencing failures in areas where they’re engaging in a covert war and not–say–where they’re being used to arrest American citizens in North Dakota.

One of the Air Force’s premier drones crashed Tuesday morning in the Seychelles, the Indian Ocean archipelago that serves as a base for anti-piracy operations, as well as U.S. surveillance missions over Somalia.


The Seychelles, where U.S. officials have worked closely with local officials to establish the drone base, is hardly enemy territory, and the drone that crashed Tuesday was operated by the Air Force, not the CIA, which operated the stealth RQ-170 that crashed in Iran.

Still, Tuesday’s crash once again illustrates the fallibility of unmanned aerial vehicles.

I guess as drone use ramps up here in the US maybe we’ll need to consult with whomever has sabotaged drones of late in multiple countries?

29 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    “…A statement from the civil aviation authority in the Seychelles attributed it to engine failure, saying that, after landing, the drone failed to stop before skidding into an outcropping of rocks at the end of the runway…”

    Look Ma! No brakes! Heh!

  2. MadDog says:

    @Jim White: Or Panetta is a jinx:

    “…The latest crash comes just hours after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the base that houses troops assigned to a unit in the horn of Africa and is home to a fleet of drones assigned to fly over the horn of Africa and some areas in the Middle East…”

  3. emptywheel says:

    @eCAHNomics: Mechanical failure also seems like it MIGHT be consistent with what brought the Sentinel down. But that would be tough to pull off in two places: two different bases, with different levels of security. Two different manufacturers (so you can’t necessarily attribute to a hack there).

    Though I do think the WaPo is wrong about the lack of involvement of the military in the Sentinel operation–I think that had ties to Creech too.

  4. eCAHNomics says:

    @emptywheel: I guess we need more data to figure out what the Occam’s razor hypothesis would be. The U.S. has flown a lot of drones without mishap that we know about. Yet there have been a few in quick succession. That’s what makes me lean more toward sabotage than mechanical failure. But who knows, or whether we’ll ever know.

  5. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: The AP’s version of the story has a bit more on what exactly happened:

    “…Lina Laurence of Seychelles’ civilian aviation authority said the drone developed engine problems minutes into its flight and needed to land as soon as possible Tuesday morning.

    “But due to its accelerated landing speed, the aircraft was unable to stop before the runway’s end,” Laurence said…”

    And I agree with you on the possibility of Creech involvement. Though not necessarily authoritative, had this yesterday:

    “…Hacking Claim

    Reverse engineering the Sentinel or its components would be difficult and time consuming, the intelligence officials said. The most troubling prospect is that the Iranians’ second claim about how they brought it down — by hacking into its controls and landing it themselves — might be true, said one of the intelligence officials .

    The official said the possibility that the Iranians, perhaps with help from China or Russia, hacked into the drone’s satellite communications is doubly alarming because it would mean that Iranian or other cyber-warfare officers were able to disable the Sentinel’s automatic self-destruct, holding pattern and return-to-base mechanisms.

    Those are intended to prevent the plane’s secret flight control, optical, radar, surveillance and communications technology from falling into the wrong hands if its controllers at Creech Lake Air Force Base or the Tonopah Test Range, both in Nevada, lose contact with it…”

  6. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: You know, if this is coordinated (don’t forget the Israeli drone in Lebanon), then our govt must be seriously shitting bricks.

  7. orionATL says:

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  8. Tom Allen says:

    I’m sorta wondering when those cows in North Dakota will be drone-assassinated as suspected terrorists. On the one hand, evil government overreach; on the other, delicious barbecue. *sigh*

  9. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Very large bricks!

    While there is such a thing as coincidence, there is also too much going on simultaneously with the keystroke logging virus at drone flight central at Creech, the mysterious loss of the flight control communications of the RQ-170 Sentinel apparently while still in Afghanistan, then the apparent unexplained flight diversion into Iran, and then finally its magical soft landing in Iran.

    Something smells.

  10. eCAHNomics says:

    @MadDog: Any suspects stick out more than others? If there’s a post on it, can you provide a link? I didn’t start paying attention until the soft landing in Iran.

  11. Bill Michtom says:

    The U.S. has flown a lot of drones without mishap that we know about. Yet there have been a few in quick succession. That’s what makes me lean more toward sabotage than mechanical failure.

    Randomocity (so to speak) tells me probability could be catching up–without any outside influences.

  12. MadDog says:

    Wired News tells that all (drones) is not lost:

    “New Armed Stealth Drone Heads to Afghanistan (And Maybe Iran, Too)

    The U.S. Air Force is sending a single copy of a brand-new stealth drone to Afghanistan. Only maybe not just Afghanistan.

    Officially, the General Atomics-made Avenger — a sleek, jet-powered upgrade of the iconic armed Predator and Reaper — is heading to Afghanistan as a combat-capable “test asset.” The Air Force said in a statement that it loves how the Avenger’s “internal weapons bay and four hardpoints on each wing,” will give it “greater flexibility and will accommodate a large selection of next generation sensor and weapons payloads,” as reported by Zach Rosenberg at Flightglobal…”

    If a stealthy, unarmed drone (the RQ-170) can’t do the job, then we’ll send a stealthy, armed drone (the Predator C Avenger) in its stead! Take that foes!

  13. BeccaM says:

    Let’s ask China. After all, they probably built many of the circuit boards and chips that went into the United States Drone Force (USDF).

  14. emptywheel says:

    @BeccaM: Right, I think there are several possible places for trouble: the chips and other components, the RSA-related hacks (which I think hit both Lockheed and GD, though I’m not sure about GD, and the keystroke logger at Creech. And all that’s before you consider human sabotage, which I admit seems more likely in Afghanistan than in Seychelles, but who knows.

  15. Jim White says:

    I’m sure it’s just coincidence, but I love it when two disparate Emptywheel topic threads suddenly come together. I just realized today that the Creech air base is only about 35 miles away from DTRA’s Project BACUS site.

  16. JohnLopresti says:

    With a new technology anticipated to fly in places where its components might be divulged by various means, mishaps, hacks, ?why not design red herring circuits, dumb satellites, a host of misdirecting discoverables? Or is there such a thing as a double-agent drone yet? triple agent drone? Does its telemetry lock up because comms’re grabbing all available cpu cycles? There’re lots of chip and circuitry things that would be fun to design as natural spoofs. And the technology for the robotics platforms seems to have been depicted by Nick Turse as pretty stable, solid, and debugged longtime since, in some of his recent articles. I would guess that more than the mundane poison pill defenses are onboard. How about making a few really dumb drones and deliberately flying them where known drone acquisition black hats are waiting to glom onto a specimen? A few more ideas and one could run for office based on those sorts of misdirection plays; or laze into the playoffs.

    Then again, pilot G.Powers decided to take his chances and not take the poison when the unfamiliar individual u2 he was in took the dive in yesteryear. Sorry, replied HAL.

  17. MadDog says:

    In the ongoing “drones over Iran” drama, Defense Secretary Panetta confirms there will be more US episodes in the series (pardon the Fox News source):

    “Panetta Says Drone Campaign Over Iran Will Continue

    Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in an exclusive interview with Fox News, said that the stealth drone campaign along the Iran-Afghanistan border will “absolutely” continue despite the loss of a valuable and sophisticated drone to Iran…


    Panetta would not comment directly on what that drone was doing over Iran, but he said the U.S. military has no plans to halt the drone operation out of western Afghanistan.

    “Those operations have to be protected in order to do the job and the mission that they’re involved with,” he said.

    When asked if he would continue those missions as they have been conducted out of Afghanistan, he responded with one word: “Absolutely…”

    I guess we’re going to need more popcorn.

  18. bmaz says:

    @MadDog: So, did Uncle Leon Panetta say this over a glass of $10,000.00 a bottle Chateau Laffitte at Citronelle in DC, or just at work after his fucking limousine took him took him to the Pentagon?

  19. zot23 says:

    I’m going to post here what I posted elsewhere on the web. You don’t need a super secret cabal of mega-hackers hiding in bushes across the world to bring down these drones, all you need is mathematics.

    If you have an in-flight potential failure rate of say, 1:100,000…

    * 2,000 drones flying 10 missions a week gives you one failure every 5 weeks or so
    * 5,000 drones flying 20 missions a week gives one failure every week
    * 20,000 drones flying 20 missions a week gives a failure about every 2 days

    These things aren’t designed like airplanes, the unmanned status allows them to be made less robust and allow for looser maintenance. After all, who dies if one goes down in the middle of nowhere?
    I think they are just using drones a lot more than we know, failures are to be expected. They are patrolling probably all our foreign bases, our Mexico border, nations we consider hostile, and ??? I don’t know how many are in operation or how much they fly, but I’d bet whoever is turning a hell of a profit off these things.

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