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The Military

More Air Force Drones Are Crashing Than Ever As Mysterious New Problems Emerge (washingtonpost.com) 141

schwit1 points out that a record number of Air Force drones crashed in major accidents last year. Leading the accident count is the Reaper which has seen a number of sudden electrical failures. The Washington Post reports: "A record number of Air Force drones crashed in major accidents last year, documents show, straining the U.S. military's fleet of robotic aircraft when it is in more demand than ever for counterterrorism missions in an expanding array of war zones. Driving the increase was a mysterious surge in mishaps involving the Air Force's newest and most advanced 'hunter-killer' drone, the Reaper, which has become the Pentagon's favored weapon for conducting surveillance and airstrikes against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other militant groups. The Reaper has been bedeviled by a rash of sudden electrical failures that have caused the 21/2-ton drone to lose power and drop from the sky, according to accident-investigation documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Investigators have traced the problem to a faulty starter-generator,but have been unable to pinpoint why it goes haywire or devise a permanent fix.
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More Air Force Drones Are Crashing Than Ever As Mysterious New Problems Emerge

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  • It's not surprising (Score:5, Interesting)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @06:37PM (#51340061) Journal
    Defense contractors focus on process rather than getting good people, and over time, the good people leave. The Raytheon et al don't care, they just put more restrictive processes in place.

    It won't help, if you don't have good people, you won't have good products, no matter how good your processes are.
    • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @06:51PM (#51340189)
      Business schools teach that employees are fungible assets, i.e. interchangeable parts, so the only things that matter are things that can be tracked on spreadsheets -- like process. The fact that people matter is quickly becoming forgotten in the quest for maximizing quarterly return on investment.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by phantomfive ( 622387 )
        There is some truth to the idea......you don't want your entire company dependent on a single person (bus factor).

        When I write code, I try to write it in a way that someone else can easily follow me. But if you hire incompetent people, you'll get incompetent results, and your drones will crash. You can buy them faster computers or tell them to use more unit tests, but if they're incompetent, their unit tests will be incompetent, too. The focus needs to be on people, not process.
        • by KGIII ( 973947 ) <uninvolved@outlook.com> on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @10:05PM (#51341259) Journal

          Way back, about 8 years ago, I didn't depend on any one employee. I depended on all of them. I don't even like calling them employees as we worked together.

          Of course, we were somewhere around 220 people, as I recall. We had no HR. I was just as likely to help the cleaning crew as not. I didn't hire them to do work I couldn't do - I hired them to do things quicker and better than I could. Strangely enough, it worked. I do notice a trend in "programmers" as of late. I do not like it. I do not like it one bit.

          Don't let this go to your head but, let's say I've lots and lots of experience at this. You? You're a good programmer (or could be, but I'm pretty sure you program in C, C++, Java, and probably a bit of bash, Perl, and Python. - Just guesses based on previous comments.)

          How can I tell you're a good programmer? The way you approach your "arguments" or "statements" online. There have been times I've wanted to disagree with you 'cause you almost certainly reached the wrong conclusion BUT I'll be damned if I can find the flaw in your logic - and I was on the MIT debate team.

          I'd have hired you. I'm sure you'd have been up to full speed in six months with a mentor for just the first two and then just using the mentor when you got stuck. We had a very large and very complex code base that actually had to be adjusted, as well as adjusting the models, for each and every situation - but we could save pre-sets.

          So, don't let it got to your head. And, in traditional Slashdot style, "Go piss up a rope!" ;-)

          By the way, there's a huge difference between those who call themselves programmers today and those people I hired back from 1991 to 2005. (I needed no new programmers after 2005 but sold in 2007 and finalized the sale almost exactly eight years ago, today. I don't know what the difference is and I'm going to use a favorite quote of mine - it's nearly verbatim and might be verbatim. (Consider, I was paying 120k to start for qualified people, slightly less for training - I even sent some to school.)

          Anyhow, the quote: "Code comments go in the code, not on a coffee soaked index card on your desk, asshole."

          I think the guy had been employed with us for maybe two weeks when he said that. I also imagine most would have fired him on the spot. I brought him into the office, pulled the code, and sat there and documented it with him - and learned a lot. We're still in touch today and he has no reason to work (I made sure to share the wealth when I sold) but he seems to like the job.

          I'd rather not disclose how much I sold for, it requires some explaining, so feel free to email. The missus says I can have a laptop in the bedroom so long as I behave myself and get some sleep.

          • by lhowaf ( 3348065 )
            It's great to read posts by and about technologists with character, humor, intelligence and mettle. I hope your example isn't lost on those following in your footsteps.
            • by KGIII ( 973947 )

              I try to share because I know my methods worked - for me. Humans are assets, not just "resources." I can imagine that a fairly new employee calling the boss (and owner) of a company who was, rough guess, doing about 1.2m per year in business would have been fired on the spot. I swallowed my pride and learned something new. Someday, maybe, I'll write a book but nobody will read it - it'll just sit on a shelf somewhere. Nobody every listens to KGIII.

            • by KGIII ( 973947 )

              In addition, should I plug away at a book?

              • by lhowaf ( 3348065 )
                Only if you're well-medicated. It's hard (especially these days) to make a compelling story without car crashes or vampires (maybe vampire EMTs?) but you use colorful language and that helps a lot. Maybe pound out a chapter or two and see how it feels?
                • by KGIII ( 973947 )

                  I think I may give it a shot - if you're interested in a preview drop me an email. I'll eventually set up a site for it as well. I have an idea - you gave it to me. It will be written like a work of fiction, not as a text book. It will be based on reality though - and it will probably be completely true. I'm just not going to tell them that.

                  Did you ever read the book Cheaper By The Dozen? The movies sucked - the book was actually really good. I almost wanted to become and efficiency engineer based on that b

          • By the way, there's a huge difference between those who call themselves programmers today and those people I hired back from 1991 to 2005. (I needed no new programmers after 2005 but sold in 2007 and finalized the sale almost exactly eight years ago, today. I don't know what the difference is and I'm going to use a favorite quote of mine - it's nearly verbatim and might be verbatim. (Consider, I was paying 120k to start for qualified people, slightly less for training - I even sent some to school.)

            I've wondered about this too.....are students really coming out worse? Or is it just my imagination? I don't know, but it worries me.

            There have been times I've wanted to disagree with you 'cause you almost certainly reached the wrong conclusion BUT I'll be damned if I can find the flaw in your logic - and I was on the MIT debate team.

            Well if you disagree, you should say so anyway; you're a reasonable person so there must be a reason for you to disagree. Maybe we can come up with a reason together: two heads are better than one, etc. The argument doesn't have to be perfect for us to come to a more nuanced understanding of a topic.

      • The fact that people matter is quickly becoming forgotten in the quest for maximizing quarterly return on investment.

        That was forgotten long ago! It's in a graveyard next to research and development funding.

        The only place you will find those are startups with passionate leadership. Once Wall Street gets involved, it's all over.

        • Once Wall Street gets involved, it's all over.

          Is there really so much difference between Wall St and Sand Hill Rd?

      • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @07:41PM (#51340515) Homepage

        Sadly, business schools are full of morons with no real fucking understanding of the businesses they claim to know how to run.

        An MBA used to be an engineer who went back to school to learn to be a manager.

        Someone who get a business degree and then an MBA? They're a useless idiot, with no real world understanding, and the mistaken belief they know how to run things.

        I've met a few of those ... and they definitely fall into the category of if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

        How people got hoodwinked into believing these idiots on anything defies any rational explanation.

      • Business schools teach that employees are fungible assets

        No. Crap Business schools teach that. Or people who attend only half of the lectures of good business schools think that.

        Real business schools teach that there's no right way to run a business. They teach that you can create an enterprise by creating a production line, or by tying an entire product to a single worker, that you can build a business with high level of expertise, or that you can proceduralise everything and make people interchangeable.

        Anyone who got to the end of a business school thinking tha

    • by Jack Griffin ( 3459907 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @08:14PM (#51340685)

      Defense contractors focus on process rather than getting good people, and over time, the good people leave.

      This is all of government, and it has to be that way because you are spending public money. You can always say, but hey Bill Gates or Steve Jobs didn't care about process and look what they achieved. But then neither did Kenny Lay, Bernard Ebbers, Dick Fuld, Bernie Madoff etc etc. and when it comes to the integrity of your nation, it's better to plod along at moderate pace and survive, than to fly and possibly crash and burn.

      • This is all of government, and it has to be that way because you are spending public money

        Right, I'm not saying we should get rid of process......rather, that process is less important than people. You need to focus on making sure your people are good: you can't expect the processes to make up for that.

        • Right, I'm not saying we should get rid of process......rather, that process is less important than people. You need to focus on making sure your people are good: you can't expect the processes to make up for that.

          But that's what I was trying to say, you can't make the people more important.
          The same process that prevents corruption also prevents talent. The best you can hope for is mediocrity (which is actually fine once you accept the risks involved)

          • But that's what I was trying to say, you can't make the people more important.

            And I'm saying people are more important, and no process you can make will change that. Note I'm not saying that we should get rid of the process, but if you hire Bernie Madoff, you can't expect processes to stop him from being evil.

            Sometimes processes are unavoidable, and we need them, especially in large companies, to facilitate communication (and as you correctly mention, to stop bad behavior). But if you are thinking, "We have good processes, the quality of the people we hire doesn't matter," then you

            • And I'm saying people are more important, and no process you can make will change that.

              Yes the people (as in citizens) are more important, which is why in public service there are bureaucratic processes.

              Note I'm not saying that we should get rid of the process, but if you hire Bernie Madoff, you can't expect processes to stop him from being evil.

              In govt you can. Because you simply implement a policy where any executive decision needs to be reviewed by 3 other independent executives from 3 other independent agencies. Then it needs approval from a ministerial secretary, and if deemed a large enough risk, the minister themselves.
              This is how it works, and it stops loose cannons like Bernie Madoff from doing whatever they like.

              But if you are thinking, "We have good processes, the quality of the people we hire doesn't matter," then your company will fail.

              Govt doesn

    • by Anonymous Coward

      NAVY Engineer here... having worked with Raytheon's "Best" on several projects, they are.. well.. Fvcking Morons. I have yet to meet one that should be employed in any engineering capacity at all. the "solutions" they tend to come up with are overly complex and often doomed to failure due to piss-poor engineering knowledge and practices. We often re-do much of their work with a team 1/4 the size with results that actually function.

    • Defense contractors focus on process rather than getting good people, and over time, the good people leave.

      I've been watching this happen firsthand over the last few years, it's really sad.

    • Point of order: is not "getting good people" an important part of "process"?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @06:39PM (#51340069)

    Twice is coincidence. Three times, it's enemy action.

    • Investigators have traced the problem to a faulty starter-generator

      I.e. a big fucking coil, the exact kind of thing an EMP wants to whomp on, even with military hardening against it.

      • Investigators have traced the problem to a faulty starter-generator

        I.e. a big fucking coil, the exact kind of thing an EMP wants to whomp on, even with military hardening against it.

        I was thinking the magnetron out of a microwave oven. But yeah, same idea.

      • Show me a real life EMP weapon in action. I'll wait. No its because the part in question was built by the lowest bidder.

        • Nukes can generate EMPs. That said, I agree that it is likely shitty construction or shitty engineering.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          CHAMP.

          https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjVwuqt-rnKAhWquoMKHbfADLMQtwIIHDAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D0mjua2e8Y7k&usg=AFQjCNHzZGSCylxBZncJ6lXer04gEz7xAQ&sig2=YEXkO-lSfX03jHIz_HHIug&bvm=bv.112064104,d.amc

        • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

          There are easy ways to produce EMP, however, they are generally destructive in some way, so it is a one shot weapon.

    • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @07:07PM (#51340309) Homepage

      Twice is coincidence. Three times, it's enemy action.

      We have met the enemy, and he is us.

      • Sure it's fun to hate on bureaucratic incompetence - which is a very real thing. But here we're talking about sudden failures of military hardware in active warzones. Engineering failure does not necessarily suggest itself as the most simple/likely reason for the pattern of crashes.

        TFA does mention that about 25% of the crashes occurred stateside during test flights and pilot training. Crashes under those circumstances don't seem very suspicious. But when a well-tested drone model with an experienced op

    • The Russians have invested heavily in electronic warfare and jamming systems, and they have said relatively little about them. I for one would be very uneasy as to how networked and full of electronics western military hardware is. Drones have already been GPS hijacked. Heck, western ships have ethernet LANs on them and Microsoft has been developing Windows for Submarines. Crazy.
      • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @09:04PM (#51340949)
        Supposedly, Russian MiGS are using tube radar equipment, not because they are behind the times, but because they are much more resistant to EMP. So yes, I'm sure Russians have explored the use of electromagnetic pulses as a battle tactic.
        • Wikipedia mentions the rather old MiG-25 [wikipedia.org] as carrying vacuum tube radar equipment. However I don't see any mention of new MiG aircraft using tubes. Do you know if the newer models do in fact retain this technology?

          • Well, yes, the transmitter is generally a traveling wave tube. But that's the only one. They're sorta like the magnetron in your microwave oven.

        • Not only is that over but it was because they didn't have the manufacturing capabilities to make shielded electronics at the time; not because tubes were cheaper, but because tubes were possible. It also had a crazy-ass display [keypublishing.com] for the same reason.

      • Exactly my thought.

        It's thoughtcrime tho.

        Thinking the ruskies can make the entire US drone fleet worthless if they wanted is punishable by death.

        All it needs is some more tinfoil.

      • "Microsoft has been developing Windows for Submarines"

        Deployed for a decade or more. We know it as Windows XP.

    • Re:However... (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The enemies in this case are those fleecing the US taxpayers to fill our armed forces with halfassed shoddy crap.

      Sure, there might be a thin veneer of deniability, a "we couldn't possibly have known, it was a rogue engineer" of Volkswagen proportions, but all these things are vetted from the very top, and tested and retested endlessly. So long as the percentage of 'duds' doesn't break certain limits beyond which the complicity would become too obvious, there will continue to be tragic little whoopsies.

      When

    • Yup.

      "If it's a covert operation, you deny that you did it, but you don't necessarily deny it happened. If it's a clandestine operation, you deny it happened, but you don't necessarily deny that you did it." -- The Covert Comic [covertcomic.com]

  • Hm (Score:2, Funny)

    Sounds like they're manufactured in China.
  • they should probably get GAP coverage at least until the debt runs out...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @06:46PM (#51340131)
    Air Force Academy is in Colorado,
    Colorado legalizes Marijuana,
    Drones crash.

    Doah!

  • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @06:46PM (#51340139)
    Every time you ramp production of tech way up, quality control suffers, as you have to bring in new, inexperienced technicians to meet production deadlines. It's no secret that Obama has greatly increased the use of drones over his predecessor, so obviously production demands have gone way up, to the point where the Air Force doesn't have enough pilots and the few pilots they have are working 80 hour weeks.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    What is "21/2-ton" supposed to mean? 10.5 tons? 2.5 tons? And what "ton" are we talking about, 1000 kg or some other bullshit definition based on pounds?

    • For the metric version it would likely be 'tonne' or 'metric ton'. As for the 21/2, I'll agree with you that this is badly presented. Don't get me started on issues of US value representation, since it will probably get me -1ed to hell.

  • They should get navy seals to take out the people on the hill that made that call.

    • They should get navy seals to take out the people on the hill that made that call.

      I am suspecting the key components that have the issue are probably not Chinese, since they would not pass muster for a security audit. China doesn't have the monopoly on 'cheap crap' or 'badly QAed crap'.

      • Great to hear that good ol' 'Merican companies can still compete with the Chinese in a least one metric: production of cheap crap!
  • Why not just say 10.5 Ton? :p

  • by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @06:55PM (#51340215) Homepage Journal
    Lack of awake pilots for the distances and hours? Lack of classic jet designs ready for the role of 24/7 leadership decapitation? AI drones not ready yet?
    Contractors sold the US a complex prototype drone system that got more and more upgraded but what was offered was still not ready for the role.
    Years later the basic issues cant be hidden from the press. The electrical failures would point to having to find savings and a lack of good long term design.
    Ready for the sale pitch and fly by, long term its going to be replaced soon was seen as mission ready. US policy stretched that time line out too far and now the issues creep in.

    Or wait for the new cover story other nations can spoof the connections and GPS globally and are gliding the drones down at will. The very mysterious talking points.
    The drones need an expensive new encryption upgrade and will be just fine again.
  • Make more drones = $$$
    Make more drones + Make replacements for drones that fell outta the sky = $$$$$$

    Do they have to fear losing their contract for having some of their drones fall outta the sky??
    I doubt it.

  • by Freshly Exhumed ( 105597 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @07:18PM (#51340375) Homepage

    Thisi is what happens when you plunder alien technology from their crashed vehicles without understanding the underlying theories and principles before grafting it onto our own.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Perhaps we should have plundered the alien tech from the vehicles that didn't crash.

    • by cosm ( 1072588 )

      Thisi is what happens when you plunder alien technology from their crashed vehicles without understanding the underlying theories and principles before grafting it onto our own.

      How the fuck is this +5 Interesting? Do you millennials really believe the US Gov is using alien technology in it's UAVs? I'm guessing none of you have seen the type of shit that passes for code in the government.

  • 11.5 tons seemed like a lot, and denormalized fractions still aren't common in the press, despite my many letters. Since I'm not familiar with the current slang terms, so I had to look it up. "21/2-ton" is apparently street lingo for 5,000 US pounds. For the international audience out there, that is about 75 Akkadian bitu, or nearly 12 million Roman siliqua.

    The crazy things you kids say these days.

    • 2 1/2 ton is old army lingo from deuce and half trucks, the first trucks we sent lend lease to Russia when the Germans attacked them during WW II and our lines were about to collapse.

      So, people like to use it for things.

  • Why would a critical system like this not have a redundant generator? The 1-hour battery backup claimed is definitely not effective redundancy.

    Seems crazy that a couple-pound, maybe thousand-dollar generator would be forgone because a vehicle loss is "only" a couple million dollars.

  • Steady Losses (Score:5, Insightful)

    by godel_56 ( 1287256 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @08:06PM (#51340643)
    Actually looking at the graphs in TFA, the total losses have been pretty steady for the last five years, just proportionally more in the Air Force in 2015, as opposed to the other services.
    • I remember a few years back it was noticed that the Air Force crashed a higher percentage of its drones than the Army. One of the big operational differences that caused this was that the Army let to drones handle take off and landings automatically, while the Air Force insisted on a human pilot doing it remotely. If that is still an issue then it could be contributing to the numbers in this report, especially as the Air Force has trouble finding and retaining drone pilots.

      • I remember a few years back it was noticed that the Air Force crashed a higher percentage of its drones than the Army. ...

        It's probably a repeat of the old anti-submarine drone helicopters of a few decades ago. They used pilot trainees that had washed out of training, and although they were competent they had morale issues. It was found out that some were crashing intentionally, which really pissed off the maintainance crews that had to work on them!

        I'll bet the Airforce is using washed out pilots, but the Army is training new pilots just for the drones.

  • Just bad parts (Score:5, Interesting)

    by randomErr ( 172078 ) <ervin,kosch&gmail,com> on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @08:09PM (#51340659) Homepage Journal
    The issue is that we're on generation 3 and 4 of these air crafts. From what I hear a lot of the original systems have been re-engineered to be lighter, more power efficient, and easier to source parts for. But in the process the design, especially main controller, has cut corners. They now have thinner leads on the boards that can't take extreme temperatures or electrical interference caused by extreme loads on straining motors. Also they're taking these units on longer mission in more extreme conditions putting more stress on the machines.
  • My guess (ok, it's an informed experience) is that it probably has to do with civilian use, permitted and non-permitted, of bandwidth near or at the military drone frequencies, which tend to skip in and out of civilian frequencies.

    It could also be intentional, but I'm going to doubt that. Unless DOD was stupid enough to outsource the comm packages to China or the EU, in which case it's a hack, since they know we have more drone packages worldwide than they do.

  • Somewhere on those drones you will find a sticker that reads "Made in China"
  • Certainly, the Chines would never embed known vulnerabilities that could be remotely activated in components that they know will be used for American weapons.

    No. Certainly not.

  • by ArylAkamov ( 4036877 ) on Wednesday January 20, 2016 @10:07PM (#51341269)

    If this is confined to newer drones, I'd bet that a bean counter somewhere decided they could cut costs by putting in a 90 amp alternator instead of a 130 amp alternator.

  • Real solder needs lead.
  • Isolate the second unit and activate it using battery power, only after isolating the first unit.

    If that does not give you enough reliable flying hours to always get the drone home, well I'll just go and grow a third kidney.
  • If the numbers really are that nearly 90 percent of people killed in drone strikes "were not the intended targets" of the attacks then I think the US should stop using them. Failure in use is the next best thing I guess.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/... [huffingtonpost.com]
    https://theintercept.com/drone... [theintercept.com]

    • When the intended target is surrounded by numerous people that aren't the target, but happen to be other terrorists or bomb builders, or other bad people, who cares if they are collateral of the target?

      These aren't random civilians getting killed, they are collateral targets that weren't the original target.

  • Simple

    Someone needs to find the Planned Obsolescence chip that counts the number of landings and take-offs and reset it.

    You could ask the local printer ink shop to do it for you.

    duh.

    • Simple

      Someone needs to find the Planned Obsolescence chip ...

      You know... I am not so sure that is actually just a joke. 8-(

  • For fighting savages - maybe. But in a conflict with peers or near-peers the UAV technology would fail massively due to the radio-link inherent vulnerability.

    Jamming, GPS spoofing, break-ins, etc. are real.

    Besides, military drones create a really bad nefarious image for civil drones too. And by this causing a great harm to the world economy, as the UAV (RPAS) is promising and realistic technology in many domains of civil industry.

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