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US military drone goes AWOL, ends up crashing into tree 623 miles away

Army baffled as Shadow goes invisible

Vid The US Army is investigating how one of its drones took an unplanned 623-mile excursion and ended up stuck in a tree two states away.

The Shadow RQ-7 drone was launched by soldiers from the 2nd Stryker Brigade of the 7th Infantry Division during a training mission in Arizona at 17:16 local time. It was supposed to provide the troops with imaging support, however almost immediately after launch it lost contact with its ground station.

Losing communications with a drone isn't uncommon – the machine's software is supposed to either return it to its launch site automatically or have it loiter and try to reestablish contact. Instead, the $1.5m drone pulled a sharp right turn and headed off into New Mexico before turning north.

Lieutenant Colonel John Henderson, vice commander of the Civil Air Patrol's National Radar Analysis Team, told Stars and Stripes that they tracked the drone for the first 500 miles of its trip but then lost it in the mountains along the southern border of Colorado. He estimated that the drone would have had to fly at over 12,000 feet to get across the mountains in one piece.

The team then considered the Shadow lost, but ten days later it was found by a hiker near the town of Evergreen, just west of the Colorado state capital of Denver. The Shadow had crashed into a tree and was missing a wing as a result.

The drone, one of the newer v2 types, is launched from a catapult and it carried two cameras (one TV and one infrared), a laser pointer, and comms gear to maintain encrypted communications with its ground station. It's supposed to land on an arrestor hook for refueling and reuse, not go walkabout.

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The range of the drone under normal conditions isn't known. Paul Scharre, director of the Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security think tank, said the distance to the crash site was achievable and the 20-foot aircraft would also have benefited from strong tailwinds over Colorado.

Scharre noted that the case illustrated some of the problems with deploying semi-autonomous systems in comparison to manned military units.

"Without a person on board, even with a good link, you're not going to have the same level of cognitive awareness," he said. "And if you lose signal link, you may have a limited ability to re-assert control over the aircraft. This would not happen with a person unless they went crazy or defected. That's pretty rare."

"Imagine a soldier on Fort Huachuca getting lost doing land navigation," Scharre added. "He's not going to keep going and wander into Colorado."

The Shadow has been used by the US military for nearly 15 years and this isn't the first time one of them has gone rogue. In 2009 a Shadow drone went out of control and crashed into the Mosul offices of a major Iraqi Islamist political party. No one was hurt and the Army said the crash site was "a coincidence."

In 2014 another Shadow, operated by the Pennsylvania National Guard, crashed near a local school during an exercise. After the crash, the drone was then run over by a car, although thankfully no one was hurt.

In all of these cases, the Shadow drone was armed with nothing more deadly than a camera – however the platform has been trialed as a weapon delivery system by the US Marine Corp. The jarheads used the drone to drop mortars on target, and later abandoned the project in favor of more deadly drones. ®

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