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Software glitch grounds GFAFB Predators

The two Predator B unmanned aerial vehicles housed at Grand Forks Air Force Base by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to patrol the northern border region haven't flown since mid-November.

The two Predator B unmanned aerial vehicles housed at Grand Forks Air Force Base by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to patrol the northern border region haven't flown since mid-November.

It's because a problem was discovered in the software programming on one of the Predators during a training flight that likely will lead to a modification for the entire family of Predator Bs used in this fashion, Mike Corcoran said.

He knows about it because he directed DHS's unmanned aerial systems operations center at the base from 2007 until he resigned Jan. 2 to take a job with a Fargo engineering firm to develop commercial uses for UASs.

The software problem was discovered during a Predator flight in early November, Corcoran said Tuesday. One of the drones arrived about a year ago, and the second arrived later in 2009.

The aircraft was flying at about 1,800 feet near the base during a training session when a "power fluctuation" led to a "lost link" of communication between the remotely piloted aircraft and the command center on base.


The aircraft was expected, in that circumstance, to rise to an altitude of about 2,900 feet to figure out what was wrong from a more secure height.

But in this case, the Predator went up to about 4,100 feet, higher than expected, Corcoran said.

There was no serious safety or security issue, and nothing was damaged, but it was just the revelation that some of the software language in the program needed some editing, Corcoran said.

That is being done by the manufacturer, General Atomics, and checked by the DHS, Corcoran said.

"Actually, everything and everyone performed exactly as they were supposed to perform," Corcoran said.

Corcoran said it's a matter of finding all the new ways the Predators need to know how to behave when flying in American air space populated by lots of other aircraft.

John Priddy, acting director of the DHS's UAS operations center at the base since Corcoran left, said Tuesday he could not immediately comment in detail on the Predator problem before the routine process of clearing things with public affairs in Washington.

But he indicated Corcoran's understanding of what happened is accurate.


And Priddy emphasized that "the security of the northern border is in no way compromised" by the interruption in the Predator flights.

The DHS's fleet of manned aircraft, including helicopters and airplanes housed at the Grand Forks International Airport, continues monitoring the sector from the air.

Meanwhile, the 40 or so personnel working at the DHS's UAS operation housed on base continue training to fly Predators, he said.

"We're flying Predators all the time, but down along the southern border," Priddy said. Priddy said he was piloting a Predator himself, remotely, of course, that was cruising over the ground in the Sierra Vista area near the border south of Tucson, Ariz.

Corcoran said the Predator downtime is all part of the relatively new and always developing technology used in UAS aircraft and finding what's needed, in software and hardware, to fit the new aircraft into the nation's airspace.

It's also an illustration of the unique role this DHS operation flying UASs, Corcoran said. This DHS operation is the only place in the world where the remotely piloted drones have been flying in unrestricted areas of the national air space. Every other place where UAVs are operated involved either military or restricted air space.

The Air Force, which plans to put a UAS mission of it own at the Grand Forks base, is holding hearings this week across the state on proposed options of restricting large parts of the air space over eastern North Dakota to facilitate the mission.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com

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