The flight of a U.S. Navy unmanned helicopter into restricted airspace near the nation's capital after operators lost control of the aircraft was a "learning experience" that is unlikely to hurt efforts to integrate unmanned planes into commercial airspace, industry and military officials said.
Operators lost the control link with the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout during an Aug. 2 test flight from a Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., facility. The unmanned aircraft continued on a north-by-northwest heading for about 30 minutes and entered National Capital Region airspace, Capt. Tim Dunigan, the Navy's Fire Scout program manager, said in a statement.
When the Fire Scout was about 40 miles from Washington, D.C., operators shifted to another ground control station, re-established the control link and directed the aircraft to return to Webster Field in Maryland, Dunigan said.
The problem was identified as a "software anomaly," Dunigan said, and a modification has been developed to correct the issue.
Rob Murphy, the Navy's integrated products team leader for the Fire Scout program, said the incident will help the public gain a better understanding of unmanned aircraft.
"Folks who really didn't understand how they work will now get a better understanding of the safeguards that are in place and a better knowledge of the engineering rigor that goes into the systems," Murphy said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference in Denver.
"The systems are well laid out," he said. "The operators did lose communication, but they were able to regain it. The system operated like it was supposed to."
David Vos, senior director of unmanned aerial systems for Rockwell Collins and a member of AUVSI's Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Advocacy Committee, described the incident as a "collective learning experience." He said the Fire Scout case demonstrates "how you can completely, successfully mitigate such an event with a really good outcome and get the airplane safely on the ground again."
The incident is unlikely to set back efforts to determine Federal Aviation Administration regulations for flying unmanned aircraft in national airspace, Vos said.
"I'm pretty confident that despite these little hiccups, that this decade is … when unmanned aerial systems really begin to find their way into commercial airspace," he said.
The unmanned aircraft industry, he said, needs "all the cultural elements and different groups involved to stop being fearful and start moving along" on the commercial airspace issue.
Fire Scout test flights were suspended after the incident but are expected to resume in early September, Dunigan said.