Drone crashes into SWAT team tank during police test near Houston
(Conroe, Montgomery County) – A drone has crashed during a police test flight near Houston, adding to growing safety concerns as more police departments take flight with the unmanned aircraft.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office north of Houston became one of the first police departments in the country to begin flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for police missions in October 2011.
County officials and the maker of that drone confirmed on Friday that a recent police-only photo mission went terribly wrong.
As the sheriff’s SWAT team suited up with lots of firepower and their armored vehicle known as the “Bearcat,” a prototype drone from Vanguard Defense Industries took off for pictures of all the police action. It was basically a photo opportunity, according to those in attendance.
Vanguard CEO Michael Buscher said his company’s prototype drone was flying about 18-feet off the ground when it lost contact with the controller’s console on the ground. It’s designed to go into an auto shutdown mode, according to Buscher, but when it was coming down the drone crashed into the SWAT team’s armored vehicle.
The damage was not severe, according to Buscher, who described only some ‘blade strikes’ on the prototype drone that was being shown off to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s team.
No word on what caused the drone to lose contact with the ground console.
It’s the exact scenario that was mentioned as a major concern when the Government Accountability Office studied the growing use of police drones in 2008.
Ever since Houston Police were exposed in November 2007 on a secret test of drones for law enforcement, dozens of police agencies have applied for drones to be used on patrols throughout the country.
Couple that with recent approval for private sector use of drones and pilots and government watchdogs have plenty of concerns.
In the 2008 GAO study, Gerald Dillingham, Director of Civil Aviation for GAO said,
“The concern is that you could lose control of that aircraft and it could crash into something on the ground or, in fact, it could crash into another air vehicle.”
The GAO study found that 65% of drone crashes were caused by mechanical failures. The study analyzed Pentagon and NASA data on 199 crashes of drones on battlefields.
Before this Montgomery County crash, the only crash of a law enforcement drone was recorded in 2006 in Nogales, Arizona. The Customs & Border Protection flight crashed in the desert due to the same “lost link” scenario that sent the Montgomery County unit crashing into its SWAT team tank.
When the link between the drone and the control console on the ground is lost, all drones are designed to steady up and glide to a landing. In some cases, the drones already have a location programmed in for landing in the event of a problem. In others, there is no such pre-determined landing zone.
Dillingham said that’s another dangerous problem with drones in urban areas. He said,
“If you’re onboard the aircraft, you can tell that you’re in turbulence and you can maneuver to get the plane or the aircraft out of the turbulence. But if you’re using a UAV and there are no sensors aboard, you don’t really know that and, again, if you lose that communication link as a result of that turbulence or for any other reason, then you have an aircraft that is not in control and can, in fact, crash into something on the ground or another aircraft.”
The 73-page GAO study found 17-percent of the crashes studied were blamed on operator error and 12-percent were listed as unknown causes.
Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Gage could not be reached for comment, nor could his chief deputy in charge of his drone program.
Buscher said his prototype aircraft veered to the right when it lost communication with the groun unit, and he said it merely overshot its landing area a bit when the auto shutdown procedure kicked in.
The drone that actually belongs to the Montgomery County Sheriff, which was unveiled in October 2011, was sitting nearby and was not damaged in the crash.
Buscher said the drone that crashed was a different model from the ShadowHawk that was purchased for Montgomery County Sheriff’s use in law enforcement. That unit cost $300,000 and the sheriff said Department of Homeland Security grant money was used.
When Montgomery County unveiled its drone to the public, the sheriff and his staff boasted that it would help the SWAT team for any hostage standoff or other tense scene. Some members of the sheriff’s department SWAT team had already expressed reservations about whether they really need a drone when their riles are aimed for real.
Given how this first mission with their SWAT team ended, those skeptical deputies are unlikely to be converted into believers.