The Machine Approving the Failing Flying Robots

As I noted earlier this week, drones have proven to be very expensive failures in the last few weeks.Yesterday, Danger Room described yet another example, the Army’s Gray Eagle (and since I obsess about these things, note the failed chip).

Beginning in March 2011, “poor reliability across all major subsystems” led to delays [in the Gray Eagle program] that would seemingly never end, according to a report from Edward Greer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for developmental test and evaluation. During the same month, a Gray Eagle drone crashed in California after a faulty chip blocked a subsystem from sending commands to “a portion of the aircraft’s flight control surfaces,” Col. Timothy Baxter, the Army’s project manager for unmanned aircraft systems, elaborated in an e-mail to Inside Defense.

“Flight testing was suspended,” Greer’s report added. The faulty chip was replaced and testing resumed, but the Army was now left with fewer available flight hours. The drone’s mean times between failures — or the average time the drone or a component works without failure — is also short. First, the drone itself has an average failure every 25 hours, short of a required minimum of 100 hours. The drone’s ground control station has a rate of 27 hours before a failure, short of a required 300. The Army has since lowered the requirement to 150 hours. The Gray Eagle’s sensors fare a bit better: 134 hours to 250 hours required.

Then the Gray Eagle was delayed again last October. The report concludes that for the 2011 fiscal year, the Gray Eagle is meeting only four of seven “key performance parameters,” and the drone’s “system reliability continues to fall short of predicted growth,” which could be a problem for the upcoming tests scheduled for August.

In spite of these failures, the government is pushing to accelerate our embrace of drones.

Here’s why.

In the Center for Investigative Reporting’s coverage of the DHS report I examined earlier in the week (which includes a number of additional examples where drones failed to perform as promised), they quote co-Chair of the Drone caucus and Homeland Security Committee member, Henry Cuellar, simply assuming “they” had a strategic plan.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who has championed drones as the Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, said that Customs and Border Protection has to go back to the basics and come up with a sound strategic plan for its drones.

“The first thing any agency should have is a strategic plan. I assumed they had a plan,” said Cuellar. “We have to know where we are going before we start buying any more of the assets.”

Among Cuellar’s top donors are Global Atomics, the maker of the Predators CBP can’t use effectively as well as the Gray Eagle that keeps failing, as well as Boeing and Honeywell, which also sell UAVs.

Meanwhile, Republic Report points to an even more troubling example of failed oversight: the almost $500,000 a Northrop Grumman lobbyist was advanced to spend some time in Congress overseeing–among other things–the historically wasteful F-35 program and Northrup Grumman’s Global Hawk drone (the one that crashed earlier this week).

In 2011, after Republicans seized the House of Representatives in a landslide victory, the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the military, gained a new chairman, Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA). As with most leadership changes, McKeon and his committee hired new professional staff. Thomas MacKenzie, a vice president at Northrop Grumman, was tapped to work for the committee beginning in March of 2011.


Northrop Grumman made sure he had extra cash before he went to work writing policy on the defense budget. Republic Report viewed a recently filed ethics disclosure form, and found that Northrop Grumman paid MacKenzie a $498,334 bonus in 2011, just before he went to work under McKeon as a committee staffer. The bonus was almost the size of MacKenzie’s annual salary at the firm, which was $529,379 in 2010. [View a copy of the disclosure here.]


Representative McKeon, by far the biggest recipient of Northrop Grumman campaign contributions in Congress, has defended billions of dollars in questionable projects for MacKenzie’s former employer. McKeon has fought to cancel the retirement of the Northrop’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, a drone the Pentagon could save $2.5 billion by cutting. He’s pressed to secure funding for a range of different aircraft developed by Northrop Grumman, from a new nuclear-capable long-range bomber to the F-35, which is slated to be the most expensive weapon developed in human history.

There’s a reason Congress keeps pushing drones, and it is only partly because of their utility in certain circumstances. And it’s because Congress is being larded with people paid to push drones, but not exercise any real oversight over them.

Update: I had misstated CIR’s name. I’ve corrected that above.

16 replies
  1. JTM says:

    This might seem a strange question, but have you seen any reports of the shape of the distribution of failure times? This can tell you a lot. For example, if the distribution is exponential, then it’s not a case of something overheating or wearing out. In contrast, if the distribution is negatively-skewed, then is probably is.

  2. MadDog says:

    When I read the Danger Room piece yesterday, I was perplexed as to why the MQ-1C Grey Eagle would have such “poor reliability across all major subsystems” when it is merely an upgraded MQ-1 Predator.

    The second issue that struck me was why was the US Army trying to upgrade the now out-of-production MQ-1 Predator when General Atomics, the US Air Force, the CIA, and JSOC had all moved on to the newer General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.

    Granted that the Reaper is somewhat more expensive than the Grey Eagle:

    “…US$154.4 million (est 2011) system includes 4 aircraft (US$30.3 million/aircraft (2011) ground control stations, and Predator Primary Satellite Link versus US$90.9 million (2011) system includes 4 aircraft ground control stations, and Predator Primary Satellite Link…”

    But the Reaper is far more capable than the Grey Eagle:

    “…The MQ-9 is a larger and more capable aircraft than the earlier MQ-1 Predator (other than loiter time), and it can be controlled by the same ground systems used to control MQ-1s. The Reaper has a 950-shaft-horsepower (712 kW) turboprop engine, far more powerful than the Predator’s 115 hp (86 kW) piston engine. The increase in power allows the Reaper to carry 15 times more ordnance and cruise at three times the speed of the MQ-1…”

    But then it dawned on me: The US Army is primarily a ground-based component of the military. Flying is not what they do best.

    Yes, they have a lot of helicopters, but if you ask any fixed-wing pilot like those in the US Air Force, the US Navy, and the US Marine Corps, they think helicopters are like trying to fly elephants. Disney could do it, but real pilots think they’re crazy.

  3. Arbusto says:

    As a pilot, I wouldn’t fly an aircraft system with an MTBF of 150 hours, nor would any sane pilot. General Aviation and Airline systems MTBF are in the 1000’s if not 10,000 MTBF and up to quadruple redundancy. Why the fuck the Army or any other Service, Agency or Dept would signup for this shit in a remotely piloted vehicle is beyond disgusting.

  4. P J Evans says:

    It can’t make the specified minimum MTBF, so they lower the specified MTBF instead of rejecting the stuff as Not Meeting Specs.
    Great way to go: guaranteeing ever-poorer equipment.

  5. par4 says:

    Well sure they’re prone to accidents but how else can we have government employees caressing their joysticks in dark rooms?

  6. Arbusto says:


    PS: When I was a buyer (for several Defense Contractors), Northrop was know as about the worst contractor for waste, fraud and abuse. Still getting contracts though.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @Arbusto: Of course they are. They’re making the smart $500,000 investments where they count.

    Though I’m not sure McKeon is long for this Senate.
    Correction–that should be “House.”

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “poor reliability across all major subsystems”

    That’s systemic failure. In the real world, it would lead to thorough audits, penalties and cancelled contracts. In the cozy world of government “contracting”, vendors write the contracts, the government says, “Show me where to sign”, then opens its wallet and says, “Grab here”.

    Joltin’ Joe Lieberman was famous for never once exercising his senatorial obligation to oversee the creation, development and execution of the needless, union-busting behemoth known as the DHS. Neither the administration nor Congress has shown any inclination to disagree with that form of “oversight”, regardless of the products being purchased, amounts spent, laws bent and broken, and non-performance received.

    That’s not a way to shrink big gubmint; it is a sure fire way to make sure it operates in no one’s interest but those of private contractors and banks.

  9. Arbusto says:

    @emptywheel @8:
    Marcy, ever the optimist. The GOP would never let blatant conflict of interest deter them from their anointed duty, nor the DINO’s object to same.

  10. jawbone says:

    Ooooh, this should be fun, with more and more drones to be allowed into civilian airspace in the US.

    Coming soon, a drone crashing into a roof near you!

    Like, uh, maybe, yours.

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