Drone crash? At least it wasn’t a $130 million military drone

$130M military drone crash

We’ve all been there – or at least those of us who fly drones. Maybe you catch a tree, a component fails, or you just plain make a mistake. But the odds are you’ve crashed your drone, especially if you’re flying FPV. But take comfort in the fact that even if you’re facing a costly repair, it’s not the $130 million price tag for a recent military drone crash in North Dakota.

We knew military drones were very pricey. But just how pricey? That we didn’t know until we happened upon a story in the Grand Forks Herald. Seems an RQ-4 Global Hawk drone went down on August 6, slamming into a farmer’s field and leaving a 300-yard debris field. That’s the length of three football fields.

And the cost? Well, pretty mind-blowing.

That was one expensive drone

The base model of the military drone that went down costs – gulp – $99 million. That’s some serious coin, and that’s just for the base model. But this particular iteration of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, known as the Block 40, was outfitted with additional sensors that bumped the price up to $130 million.

Here’s what one of those birds looks like:

US Air Force photo by Bobbi Zapka – Public Domain image

That’s one serious drone, even if the nose does look an awful lot like a whale.

Military drone crash

It’s not clear what went wrong. But whatever did go wrong sent this machine plowing into the earth. Yesterday, Grand Forks Air Force Base public affairs chief Lea Greene said: “It’s not very often that we lose one. It’s upsetting, but at least it’s unmanned.”

And at least it didn’t slam into an urban area. But it did really tear up that farmer’s field. The Grand Forks Herald article quotes Greene as saying the military will clean up the barley field where the crash occurred – including all parts and aviation fuel – and ensure it’s restored to the condition it was in prior to the crash.

More on the military drone crash

This isn’t just a cleanup effort. This is a pretty big deal, and will involve a lengthy investigation to fully determine the cause of the accident and – with luck – come up with recommendations to minimize the possibility of future similar incidents. At last word, the remains of the Block 40 RQ-4 were still in the field. The Grand Forks Herald offers this on the investigation:

Air Force officials could take weeks to determine the cause of the crash. A “Safety Investigation Board” comprised of a colonel and six to 10 additional officers is set to convene on Friday, Aug. 13. They’ll seek to find the root cause of the crash in an effort to prevent similar ones from happening again. They’ll ultimately publish a confidential report. Beyond that, the Air Force could call an “Accident Investigation Board” comprised of a senior pilot and several other specialists to put together a public report that can be used in litigation, discipline, and so on.

Barley and beer

Barley, as you might now, is an ingredient used in brewing beer. And the yields from this particular section of the field are contracted out to brewing giant Anheuser-Busch. A significant portion of the field had already been harvested when the crash occurred.

The Grand Forks Herald also notes there was another military drone crash affiliated with the same Air Force Base a few years back:

A similar drone crashed in 2018 off the coast of Spain en route from Grand Forks Air Force Base to an unspecified part of the US Central Command’s area of operations, which cover the Middle East and portions of southern and central Asia. The head of that “AIB” found that oil leaking from a cracked line caused an engine to falter, and the pilot diverted the drone into the water. The cost of that accident was about $98.83 million, Air Force staff claimed.

Specs

The RQ-4 is manufactured by Northrop Grumman and is a High-Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) remotely piloted surveillance aircraft. While it’s often used for border patrol from this Air Force Base, the RQ-4 is sometimes deployed for mapping missions and other data acquisition. These aircraft can fly for 32+ hours at up to 60,000 feet, covering 14,154 miles (22,780 km) in a single mission.

According to its Wikipedia entry, there have been five crashes involving the MQ-4 since 2011 – including this one.

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