Aerial warfare took another step into the robo-future on September 13 when a U.S. Air Force F-15E pilot was sent to destroy an out-of-control MQ-9 "Reaper" drone as it headed toward the Afghan border. It was the first time an errant Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) had to be shot down by a human pilot, who used an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. Frank Hartnett, a spokesman for the U.S. Air Forces Central command, points out that "the order to engage was only made after exhausting all options to establish positive control of the MQ-9. The UAV was on a track to exit Afghani airspace, so decisive action was needed."
It may take months before an investigating board determines what happened, says Hartnett. But it's not uncommon for the Reaper or its smaller relation, the MQ-1 Predator, to go awry. Nearly a third of the two dozen serious Air Force aircraft "mishaps" so far this year have involved UAVs. An FAA report summarizing UAV accidents from 1999 to 2003 found that two-thirds of the Predator mishaps were caused by human error, although the more recent crashes appear mostly due to mechanical failure.
Still, the Air Force loves its drones. Next year the service plans to buy more UAVs than piloted aircraft. And use of the Predator and Reaper is on the rise in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for missions ranging from watching over ground troops to hunting down Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents.
If you want an idea of what it's like to control a UAV, the Air Force has an online game where you can simulate flying the MQ-9 Reaper. Just don't head for the Afghan border.