US Navy MQ-8B gave its operators quite a scare when they suddenly lost contact with the craft and it flew to Washington DC violating restricted airspace. As trained operators struggled to reestablish contact with the craft they found the craft was completely ignoring orders and heading straight for the US Capital.
The craft, in its 1,000 hour flight career had never shown any sign of being anything but fully dependable, but as the experimental flight test on August 2nd began it broke off after a little over an hour into the test and started heading into the most off limits airspace in the world.
The drone, used primarily as a reconnaissance drone is unmanned and primarily is used to gather information and send it to Naval forces tracking both enemy combatants and nearby ships. The drone is intended to ensure incursions into restricted areas does not occur rather than perpetrate these restrictions itself. Since the incident all use of the MQ-8B have been suspended pending an investigation into what made the drone suddenly stop taking orders. Additionally there will no doubt be an inquiry into the coincidence of it making Washington DC its target.
A software glitch, according to investigators, is responsible for the deviation from its initial course. The glitch essentially turned off its ability to receive new commands from the first command station and then stop following its plotted course. The vehicle once again regained control when operations were moved to another center where commands overrode the glitch and it resumed its course safely out of restricted airspace without being shot down.
In this world where we depend so heavily on automated machines we run the risk of leaving ourselves open to leaving the mission parameters and conditions of these machines to be compromised by enemy forces. While pilots take oaths of loyalty to protect their countries and have every intention of upholding those oaths, machines know only the loyalty to their programming. And just as a computer “glitch” can be changed in order to maintain this illusory loyalty, so too can it be changed to show loyalty to an enemy force. Essentially we are putting guns and cameras in the sky that may at some point in the future find themselves in danger of being reprogrammed by skilled hackers. And once these automated vehicles are compromised, what can we do then?
For the most part, even “automated” vehicles are largely controlled by human hands from miles away using coded frequencies and other countermeasures, but how safe can we truly be if these craft can accidentally enter the restricted airspace of the nation’s capital?
And the glitch causing the event itself sounds a bit mysterious and even suspicious. No doubt this too will be under close scrutiny as the investigation unfolds. A final troubling note reminds us that many systems, including some of our nuclear capabilities run on systems that have automated components within them as well. Let’s hope these older systems are more expertly programmed.