A ‘runaway’ MQ-8B FireScout flew for 20 minutes out of control on August 2, 2010, travelling about 23 miles from the U.S. Navy Webster Field in Maryland toward the capital the CNN reported today. As ground communications failed, the unmanned helicopter continued to fly away from the base, instead of returning back to its launch point, the standard automatic procedure in such an event. The new course took it out of the field’s restricted military flight zone, into the National Capitol Region restricted air space, alerting the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the Federal Aviation Administration. After about 20 minutes, the crew managed to re-program the drone to turn back, as it was about 40 miles from the capital.
Fortunately, this incident did not deter the FAA from allowing the U.S. Army to fly their new ‘Grey Eagle’ (previously known as Sky Warrior or ERMP) in the national airspace, along with civilian and commercial aircraft, out of the restricted area over El-Mirage in Southern California. According to the Army, the new permission enables UAS to fly only night missions, when commercial traffic is minimal. For situational awareness operators will rely on ground based radars, providing the ‘Sense and Avoid’ function commonly employed by pilots in manned aircraft. According to the FAA restrictions that followed the Certification of Authorization (COA), an FAA representative will be present in the control center when UAVs are operated in the area. The Army is hopeful that after a while, FAA will waive the restriction of their representative presence in the center, enabling the service to exercise full control over the mission.