Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Déjà Vu: UAV Sky is NOT Falling

Solomon over at SNAFU! wondered what I thought about this article. I provided the short answer in his comment thread:
Doomberg Reporter who knows nothing about reliability, maintainability, and availability (RM&A) and even LESS about UAV design and operation wrote a punk-reporting hit piece on UAV RM&A, design and operation.
From the slant, this is all about generating negative buzz as battlefield prep for efforts to stunt the growth of possible domestic UAV missions (over our US heads).
The New Navy 'Triton'. (Huge High Rez version here.)

Now... let me back that up with the LONG answer.

We'll parse the few key parts in little pieces at one time.... and we will need to use very few sources, as this so-called "news" is pure déjà' vu. The only thing new is the 'civil rights as backdrop' twist,
But First! Here is Your Unmanned Vehicle Tip O’ the Day: A solid ‘tell’ that reveals amateurs and political hacks is when they use the word ‘Drone’ in lieu of Unmanned Air Vehicles. Drones were/are launched to fly pre-programmed routes where their flight termination systems (FTS) would activate at the end of the flight and/or activate on command of a range/flight safety officer if it strayed off course or flew past the planned flight terminus. The FTS may blow off a wing or set off another charge to destroy the drone in flight or it might simply deploy a recovery chute. To get more than a few flights out of a drone was/is remarkable (ala "Tomcat" in Vietnam). UAVs fly preplanned routes and involve varying degrees of human control and intervention. The one thing they have in common is that the human can intervene as desired or required to redirect the UAV. Amateurs use the 'Drone' term because they don’t know any better. Political hacks use it because it sounds scarier to the general public: a trigger word creating visions in the minds of the unwashed of mindless workers carrying out their dangerous chores unthinking and uncaring of anything between it and its mission.

Keep in mind these UAV/Drone differences as we wade through this Bloomberg 'activist-farce-as-news' piece.
Bloomberg aricle: The BGOV Barometer shows Northrop’s Global Hawk and General Atomics’s Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles have had a combined 9.31 accidents for every 100,000 hours of flying. That’s the highest rate of any category of aircraft and more than triple the fleet-wide average of 3.03, according to military data compiled by Bloomberg.
And later....
The Global Hawk has an accident rate of 15.16 per 100,000 flight hours, almost three times that of the aircraft it’s designed to replace, the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane.

“The mishap rate for large UAVs should be reduced to less than 25 per 100,000 hours by 2009 and less than 15 by 2015,” recommended the report Defense Department’s 2002 UAV Roadmap], which did not set specific goals for smaller UAVs, citing a need for further research into factors affecting their aerodynamics. It did suggest examining a retrofit of Predator B components on the more crash-prone Predator A, standardizing reliability measurements between all services and incorporating all-weather capability into future designs.
In 2012, the ‘combined’ mishap rate is about 38% lower than the planned 2015 figure for large UAVs  AND the through-2012 'Large UAV' mishap rate is already within spitting distance of the ‘planned ’ 2015 goals.  Hey... We're three years ahead of plan! 

So what is the problem?
More Bloomberg article: The June 11 crash of a drone near Bloodsworth Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore illustrated the vehicles’ propensity for accidents, known as “mishaps” in military parlance. The concern is that drones’ safety record won’t improve as they’re increasingly deployed for testing, border surveillance and other missions in U.S. airspace, said Jay Stanley, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington
Two points. Last thing first because it is easiest.  Who the @#$% is ‘Jay Stanley’? And just WHY would he be concerned that “drones’ safety’ records won’t improve? Perhaps his ACLU Bio will assist?:
Jay Stanley, Source ACLU
Jay Stanley is Senior Policy Analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, where he researches, writes and speaks about technology-related privacy and civil liberties issues and their future.  He is the Editor of the ACLU's "Free Future" blog and has authored and co-authored a variety of influential ACLU reports on privacy and technology topics. Before joining the ACLU, he was an analyst at the technology research firm Forrester, served as American politics editor of Facts on File’s World News Digest, and as national newswire editor at Medialink. He is a graduate of Williams College and holds an M.A. in American History from the University of Virginia.

Ohhhh. I get it. Mr. Stanley's ’concerned’ because he doesn’t know a freakin’ thing about UAVs. That would make him an ‘amateur’ AND a ‘political hack’. Want further proof? Then let’s go to the second point.
We don’t know that “June 11 crash of a drone [sic] near Bloodsworth Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore” illustrates “the vehicles’ propensity for accidents”.  The causes aren’t known yet, and since it was an UNMANNED AIR VEHICLE and not a ‘Drone’, it had a man ‘in-the-loop’ along with all the associated control and telemetry systems.
IF it is found that the Navy’s BAMS demonstrator that crashed WAS due to an on-board system failure or even a failure anywhere in the air or ground elements of the total system, all it proves is that particular vehicle crashed due to a failure. Now, speaking with more specificity, it perhaps would not be ‘news’ if that particular vehicle experienced some particular critical system failure seen in the early Block 10 Global Hawks, as it WAS a ‘re-purposed Block 10 Global Hawk part of the initial Global Hawk fleet designed to be ‘technology demonstrators’ under a DARPA contract.
You may ask, WHY is that significant?
Again From 2003:
Similarly, Boone blames the Global Hawk’s crashes, which have claimed four of six prototypes, on hasty deployment to theaters such as Afghanistan. Accolades earned during Operation Enduring Freedom have obscured the fact that the Global Hawk is still in the development stage. “In normal times, it would never have been deployed,” added Boone.
It would be a pretty fickle ‘customer’ who feels they can decide to deploy a technology demonstrator as a weapon yet they STILL have the chutzpa to complain about ‘reliability’.
How ‘reliable’ should these Unmanned Aircraft Systems be?
That depends…
And Yet Again from 2003:
Agreeing that UAV reliability should improve is easy, but how this will be accomplished is another matter. Cost is a concern. More redundancy of flight control systems boosts reliability, but beyond a certain threshold, they negate the UAV cost advantage over manned aircraft, the Pentagon report noted. Similarly, the absence of components needed for manned aircraft make UAVs cheaper, but also affect reliability. And if reliability is overly compromised, then high attrition will require more UAVs to be acquired, thus negating the cost savings. The report recommends focusing improvement efforts on UAV flight control systems, propulsion and operator training, which account for 80 percent of mishaps. It suggests possible remedies such as decreasing maintenance requirements by substituting electrical for hydraulic systems, and digital for analog sensors redundancy is difficult to add to smaller UAVs, but larger aircraft, such as the Global Hawk, have dual redundancy flight control systems and communications, which add reliability but also cost and weight. Triple redundancy is an even more expensive option. “If you make UAVs too expensive or too capable, now you’re going to say that you can’t afford to lose them. You have a Hobson’s choice,” said Timothy Beard, a retired admiral and aviator who is now Northrop Grumman’s director of business development for unmanned vehicles.
See what I mean about Déjà Vu? It’s 2003 all over again.


Let’s recap:

  • The RQ-4 BAMS-D that crashed was a re-purposed Block 10 “technology demonstrator” with few, if any, of the reliability improvements incorporated into later GH versions.
  • It looks like since 2002 that, all things considered (like ‘wars’ and the learning curve required to operate new types of systems), the UAV reliability goals are being met or exceeded.

Parting shots:

  • Mixing different aircraft mishap rates to arrive at a composite value is pseudoscience akin to phrenology.
  • Carping over Global Hawk A/B mishap rates when as of 2011 only 68,000 flight hours (53,000 ‘Combat’ hours) have been accumulated is like telling your 11 year old kid he’ll never amount to anything because he hasn’t graduated from college “yet”.
  • Comparing mishap rates between short range and long range/high endurance assets is highly misleading and inappropriate.    

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