back to article Brit Watchkeeper drone fell in the sea because blocked sensor made algorithms flip out

A British Army Watchkeeper drone stalled itself and crashed into the sea on a bad weather flight test, military investigators have said – though most of the wreckage was never found. The unmanned aircraft, tail number WK042, fell from the sky in February 2017 while trialling a new ice detection system. The drone was being …

  1. WolfFan Silver badge

    is it just me

    or does that thing look like a dildo with wings?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: is it just me

      well at least they can't say they don't give a flying f....

      1. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
        Facepalm

        @AC ... Re: is it just me

        well at least they can't say they don't give a flying f....

        Note that since they fly from waypoint to waypoint... its very easy to actually get them to draw 'dick picks' with their flight path, along with other naughty things.

        Just saying.

    2. Rameses Niblick the Third Kerplunk Kerplunk Whoops Where's My Thribble? Silver badge

      Re: is it just me

      or does that thing look like a dildo with wings?

      In my experience, that's what most aircraft look like.

      Then again given the people I work with, I see dicks everywhere.

    3. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge
      Gimp

      Re: is it just me

      Wishful thinking that they can keep it up....

    4. Nick Kew Silver badge

      Re: is it just me

      Just you? I have no idea whether you look like a dildo with wings.

      And would that be a human or lupine dildo? Come to think of it, I don't think I'd know what either looks like.

    5. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
      WTF?

      You'd think

      You'd think that the software would be doing consistency checks against not just other sensors, but against things like the aircraft's motion as reported by GPS and especially INS.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: You'd think

        Having worked with a PhD who previously worked for Thales, I'm not sure that thinking outside the budget box is really that encouraged.

      2. bpfh Bronze badge

        Re: You'd think

        Not sure that GPS guidance on drones is flavour of the month, after the Iranians nicked one and the Russians have a habit of jamming the signal...

        Still, my mobile phone has a gyroscope that should allow it to stay stable, but even so, with no remote control, how in Satan’s Glorious Name did the designers hope to land one of these if it can be confused enough misjudge it’s own airspeed and stall into oblivion? Are Thales making some extra cash making fail videos?

      3. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
        Boffin

        @The Man Who failed to earth ... Re: You'd think

        You'd think that people would think about the problem...

        First GPS... unless you're using the military precision signals along with a good connection to a few of the sats, along with a really good clock on the plane itself... you're not going to be accurate enough to know your specific position. (You can add a radio signal from a known ground point to also help too.) Commercial GPS is only accurate within 1.5meters at best. This is in part due to the maps, but also the clock signals and the quality of the clock in the GPS device itself. Surveyors that get down to 1cm precision have to set up and keep the units still for 24 hours before using because even throughout the day, the sun and atmospheric conditions can impact the signals.

        But I digress, the issue isn't position, but one of flight controls... airspeed, altitude, attitude (AOA) etc ...

        So GPS will have nothing to do with it.

        I guess you could put some accelerometers ?sp? throughout the plane to help identify some information, but not all of it. So if you have a sensor failure... you are SOL and will lose the aircraft. This is where flight control systems need to be improved.

        While I am an engineer, I am not an aeronautical engineer so I don't know all of the stresses and issues with flight systems.

        I have to wonder about adding redundancy to the sensors to help and to also think about other things that they could do to measure AoA (pitch) etc ...

    6. caffeine addict Silver badge

      Re: is it just me

      This would have thrilled Claire Rayner...

  2. dajames Silver badge
    Facepalm

    What a good thing ...

    ... it could never happen on a commercial aircraft!

    I'd hate to think a new Boeing, say, could get into a state in which it behaved erratically and crashed just because it couldn't get an accurate Angle of Attack reading. That would be really dangerous.

    Fortunately passenger airlines are supposed to be built to higher standards, with multiply redundant systems, and so on, so they are bound to be safe ... right?

    1. Spudley

      Re: What a good thing ...

      > <snipped snarky Boeing comments>

      Too soon, mate. Too soon.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: What a good thing ...

        Not soon enough.

        Too soon would have been at one of the dozens of design, review, testing, analysis and hand off meetings when nobody asked - what if the sensor fails ?

        1. Spudley

          Re: What a good thing ...

          Let me clarify, because people seem to think I'm wrong.

          It is indeed never too soon to discuss correct design and criticise failures.

          But right now is too soon to be making flippant jokes about an aircraft crash that claimed hundreds of lives only a month ago.

          There is an obvious comparison to be drawn between the two events, and I'm right with you in making it, but pleae just be a bit more careful about making your point by turning it into a snarky joke, because a month after the Ethiopian crash, that comes across as being in poor taste.

          1. caffeine addict Silver badge

            Re: What a good thing ...

            That, dear sir, is not the British way of dealing with tragedy.

            1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

              Re: What a good thing ...

              Prang, gone for a Burton.

            2. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

              Re: What a good thing ...

              It's somebody else's tragedy, not ours, so... :-(

          2. TRT Silver badge

            Re: What a good thing ...

            Damned if you do, Notre Damned if you don’t.

    2. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: What a good thing ...

      Anyone recall an Air France Airbus being flown into the Atlantic? Must have had the same firmware.....

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What a good thing ...

        With Air France flight 447 it was a problem with the pilots losing situational awareness rather than an error associated with a flight control algorithm. When the airspeed measurements became unreliable, the autopilot disengaged, but after the crew took over they stalled the aircraft. Nothing at all to do with dodgy firmware.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: What a good thing ...

          Yep. Air France flight 447 failed to follow training. Where as the recent crashes with the 737 max did mostly follow training as best they could.

        2. jgarbo

          Re: What a good thing ...

          #447 crash was caused by a (long known) frozen pitot tube that couldn't give correct air speed. The pilots eventually stalled the plane and crashed. Airbus then grudgingly replaced the faulty pitot tubes.

      2. Alistair Silver badge
        Windows

        Re: What a good thing ...

        @martinU

        Well the similarity being foul weather and (a/couple) frozen pitot tube/s. After that its all boeing boeing boeing down to the water.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: What a good thing ...

          Boeing Boeing gone?

    3. Grinning Bandicoot

      Re: What a good thing ...

      Air France Rio to Paris pitot tube blocked was flown into the Atlantic some years back and a Peruvian airline now defunkt had a intermittent problem with its altimeter and it too was flown into the Pacific. In both cases and apparently now with Boeing is that the GIGO rule has been forgotten and flight programs are light in such fault decoding.

  3. codejunky Silver badge

    Hmm

    One thing crossing my mind is how easy it must be to steal one of these if you are a foreign power. Knock it out of the sky, nobody trusts the readings and then collect the thing leaving just a panel.

    But then considering how great these things seem to have been so far I cant see why someone would want to steal one.

    1. David Neil

      Re: Hmm

      Isn't that the plot to a Bond film, albeit with a V bomber?

      1. WolfFan Silver badge

        Re: Hmm

        Two of them. _Thunderball_ and _Never Say Never Again_.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hmm

          Pedant alert: Technically it was a crusie missile in Never Say Never Again.

          1. Anonymous Cowtard

            Re: Hmm pedant alert

            I'm pretty sure it wasn't a crusie missile.

        2. elgarak1

          Re: Hmm

          Depends on how you consider them to be different. Both movies originated from the same screenplay written by Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham before the 'official' James Bond movies started. Ian Fleming wrote the novel Thunderball based on that script without acknowledging his co-authors, which led to some legal haggling over the years, which resulted in McClory getting producer credit on Thunderball (movie), and retaining enough rights to make a Bond movie with that specific story later on (more or less).

    2. Blazde

      Re: Hmm

      Iran did this with a US Sentinel, except instead of faking a crash they made it land safely and were all "nahaha we've got your drone we're going to copy it" and then they copied it.

      Then they gave a panel of the copy to Netanyahu and he was all "nahaha we've got your drone" and presumably set about copying it.

      I think this process might be how the machines will 'self-replicate' in future?

      1. Simon Harris Silver badge
        Terminator

        Re: Hmm

        "I think this process might be how the machines will 'self-replicate' in future?"

        A very cunning ruse of the part of the machines - all the while letting the defence/defense (depending on geographical preference) departments think it's the machines that serve them.

      2. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge

        @Blazde Re: Hmm

        Surveillance drones? Meh.

        Well ok, it depends on which one. What the Iranians got isn't that terribly advanced. You don't need them to be that advanced in most situations.

        Now China got a lot of advanced tech, and they didn't even need to leave their cubicles to get it. But that's a different story.

    3. herman Silver badge

      Re: Hmm

      "why someone would want to steal one": To learn from other people's mistakes - how not to do it can also be very valuable.

  4. Martin hepworth

    737max

    Sounds horribly similar to the error on the 737max computer systems - bad sensors confusing the computer

    1. phuzz Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: 737max

      At least in this case it took fifteen minutes to crash, flying "an erratic series of climbs and dives". In a 737max as soon as it loses input from the AoA sensor it just noses down into the ground.

      1. chrismiller

        Re: 737max

        Not quiet, both 737 max crashes follow a number of minutes of the pilots battling with the automated anti stall system.

  5. highdiver_2000

    Why is this even the British Army fault? Nobody did any icing tests before IOC?

    Seriously, they should watch more Ironman movies

    1. Chrissy
      Black Helicopters

      Dry, hot and dusty

      I think the use case for these drones has always been assumed to "somewhere dry, hot and dusty" so the wet and icy weather to be found off the coast of Wales was never in the design spec, so no heated pitots.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Dry, hot and dusty

        That thinking by the militaries has changed recently. All of them are now looking at some past colder which now needs new designs for the weather.

      2. SkippyBing Silver badge

        Re: Dry, hot and dusty

        Not true, Watchkeeper is supposed to be an all-weather version of the Hermes 450. Hence pitot heaters, a redesigned icing resistant wing etc. In this case as far as I could make out, although the aircraft was obviously in icing conditions the operators didn't select the heating on as there was no indication from the aircraft, despite all the warning signs being there.

        Incidentally it was being flown by Thales, the manufacturer rather than the Army, so I'd blame them for this one.

        1. SkippyBing Silver badge

          Re: Dry, hot and dusty

          Update having skimmed the report, it appears due to occasional issues with water ingress to the pitot system the aircraft are always operated with the pitot heaters on, including in this case. Plus they purge the system as part of the maintenance. What they didn't do was activate the wing de-icing but examination of the air frame with the camera pod didn't show any icing.

          Two different designs of pitot are used, but the conclusion seems to be that moisture accumulated in both during the flight leading to errors in speed as altitude changes. It could also affect Angle of Attack and Angle of Slip measurement as they're done via the pitot system on Watchkeeper, rather than a rotating vane as on most airliners, including the 737.

          1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

            Re: Dry, hot and dusty

            Time for a solid state measurement device? Like those fish with sensory strips on their sides. Harder to freeze and entire aircraft skin. :P

            1. imanidiot Silver badge

              Re: Dry, hot and dusty

              Pitots are pretty much static solid state devices. It's just that there is a tube leading from the pitot tube to the pressure transducer. You don't want to put that transducer right in the airflow because of the icing and moisture problems (Temperature swings would also be very difficult to compensate for). That leaves you with a pitot probe that CAN have icing and water ingress problems. The fact they have so much problems when it is a pretty much solved problem in aviation (the problem is well understood and researched) is beyond me though. To me it indicated serious incompetence or willful ignorance. (Both unfortunately run rampant in government contracts in my limited experience)

      3. Simon Harris Silver badge

        Re: Dry, hot and dusty

        Out of interest, how well do pitot tubes hold up in sandstorms?

        1. scoffcruddle
          Coat

          Re: Dry, hot and dusty

          What a Darude question!

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Dry, hot and dusty

        "I think the use case for these drones has always been assumed to "somewhere dry, hot and dusty" so the wet and icy weather to be found off the coast of Wales was never in the design spec, so no heated pitots."

        You need to watch the Long Johns (Johns Bird and Fortune) interview on Bremner, Bird and Fortune around the time of the Gulf War where John Bird is being interviewed as a UK army general who continually talks up the capabilities of the army equipment before explaining that it was intended for use in a war in northern europe and won't work in sand/heat/dry conditions in Iraq ... he ends with the suggestion that they write to Sadaam Hussein and suggest that as he clearly wants a war why doesn't he come over to northern europe to fight it.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Dry, hot and dusty

          Or the Eurofighter one where the only practical opponent is Malaysia and it doesn't have the range to get there so he suggests inviting them to hold their war here at the factory that was re-designated an RAF base to meet a 'delivery' deadline

    2. SkippyBing Silver badge

      This one really isn't the Army's fault, it was the manufacturer flying it to test something that they'd done. So totally on Thales.

  6. John H Woods Silver badge

    Like AF447?

    Another case where frozen Pitot tubes caused a problem, although in that case the faulty response was in wetware.

    But from the little I know, wouldn't one expect these to be prone to freezing?

    1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

      Re: Like AF447?

      Is pitot heat no longer a "thing"?

    2. Commswonk Silver badge

      Re: Like AF447?

      From the article: The unmanned aircraft, tail number WK042, fell from the sky in February 2017 while trialling a new ice detection system.

      From John H Woods' post: wouldn't one expect these to be prone to freezing?

      In a word... yes, which is why pitot tubes have heaters to prevent icing; I am less certain about the accompanying static vents but ISTR an aircraft falling out of the sky because a static vent was blocked by ice.

      I find myself wondering if (functioning!) heated pitot tubes were specified; if part of the testing procedure involved flying around looking for icing then having unheated tubes would seem negligent beyond belief.

      Perhaps it really was a software problem, but applying Occam's Razor points to the possibility of an altogether simpler failure in what is, furthermore, a known failure mode.

      I wonder if "Pitot Heaters On" (if the heaters actually exist and are supposed to work) is a function buried in all the other data the drone is feeding back.

      Trouble is that even if the wreckage had been found there would have been no physical evidence that a frozen pitot or static vent had caused the crash.

      1. SkippyBing Silver badge

        Re: Like AF447?

        According to the report the pitot heaters were definitely on, the belief is that there was a build up of moisture in the pitot system that led to a blockage, leading to unreliable airspeed and AoA measurement.

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One of my friends that works at a large US DoD company - his job is basically asking "what if [sensor] takes a shit?" and sitting back to see all the deer-in-a-headlight stares.

    "oh yeah if that sensor stops working the computer will ignore it"

    "how does the computer know it's stopped working/faulty/incorrect?"

    "er. uh. um. well. I will have to get back to you on that"

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Netlfix goes one further, it invented "chaos monkey" - an app that randomly shuts down servers, kills process, drops network connections, corrupts packets etc - just to test what would happen.

      If your bit of the system doesn't degrade gracefully - you fix it.

      Of course the engineering time and expense necessary to ensure that Game of Thrones isn't interrupted wouldn't be appropriate to building an aircraft

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Netlfix goes one further, it invented "chaos monkey" - an app that randomly shuts down servers, kills process, drops network connections, corrupts packets etc - just to test what would happen.

        Well, duh, that's just basic Windows 10 functionality. Now we know why.

      2. TRT Silver badge

        GoT

        Worked well in France I hear.

        And you need to rest your ice detection systems. Winter is coming.

    2. Grandpa Tom

      Simple.

      Install THREE sensors for every required measurement. Read all three and believe two of them that have a similar report.

      1. codejunky Silver badge

        @Grandpa Tom

        "Install THREE sensors"

        I assume you mean different kinds of sensor working in different ways if possible?

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: @Grandpa Tom

          Or even one sensor so long as you can detect when it fails.

          Don't write code which performs perfectly well when the sensor outputs a normal range of values but when a millisecond later it sends you 0xFFFF and you just decide that this means the plane is currently flying upside down and so your autopilot needs to do a barrel roll in a 737.

        2. Marcus Fil
          Alien

          Re: @Grandpa Tom

          Yes, this is a start. But, as was discovered on the US Space Shuttle program, even different manufacturers using different parts will have systems performing the same function designed in broadly the same way with potentially the same logical flaws. The answer of course is to farm out at least one of your triplex redundant systems to a non-human entity for design and manufacture. Of course in the absence of an acknowledged ETI presence maybe us humans could try AI?

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Re: maybe us humans could try AI

            "I've just picked up a fault in the AE-35 unit. It is going to go 100 percent failure within 72 hours."

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Three is the magic number

        "Install THREE sensors for every required measurement. Read all three and believe two of them that have a similar report."

        Standard operating practice in commercial airliners. Usually a good idea, but sometimes it's not enough on its own, e.g. AF447 crashed because other Bad Things happened even with three sensors of two dissimilar desgns, before and after the identical two of its three pitot tubes failed identically at the same time (as had occurred on other aircraft on previous occassions in similar conditions, fortunately with less drastic consequences, but the implications had been recognised sufficiently for modification programmes to be required). It's well documented in various places.

        When that happens, the two failed sensors can outvote the one which is behaving sensibly, but sensible flight crew may be able to either reduce the risk of it happening (don't fly through icing conditions) or recognise and resolve the issue if two did fail identically..

        On the AF447 flight in question, the two identical pitot failures combined with various other unrelated failures (e.g. flying through icing conditions rather than around, less than ideal reaction from the crew, etc) led to the loss of all on board.

      3. TonyJ Silver badge

        My (diving) rebreather has three O2 sensors.

        Prior to a dive you calibrate the unit. During the calibration, and during the dive, it uses an algorithm (closely guarded secret, of course) to determine if any one of them is faulty and ignores it.

        Of course, it doesn't rule out two could be faulty but that's why you watch the calibration process and rotate the cells out at different times, so they're not all three from the same batch.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Observable failure.

          Yeah, human/coded rotation *during* use could also show that a unit has failed, because it will be substantially different. Then you can get the best "outta there" you can once detected.

      4. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

        Just three sensors? I'd want more unless I expect to manage without the service at all.

        The log as quoted apparently describes a designed attempt to "manage without", the "estimated" reading, but on this occasion there is still an unsatisfactory conclusion.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      One of my friends that works at a large US DoD company - his job is basically asking "what if [sensor] takes a shit?" and sitting back to see all the deer-in-a-headlight stares.

      I've watched too many "aircrash investigation" episodes (well, mostly partial episodes as my wife and son seem to be hooked on them and have to occasionally endure it!) and invariably in the program as the invesitgators seem totally puzzled by what caused the crash there's a point(*) where one of the actors will suddenly pause appearing to have had a "lightbulb moment" say something like "bu what if the sensor stopped working", rush to a whiteboard where he'll draw a line that shows the plane flying along then plummeting to the ground while all the others watch and start to murmer in a "why didn't we think of this earlier" sort of way.

      (*) a similar inevitable point to the one in Grand Designs episodes where Kevin McCloud puts on his most serious voice to say "today is the day when the steel work arrives - but are the plans accurate as if the steel doesn't fit there's no chance the buildiong will be complete before Christmas/the baby/end of lease on current house arrives.

  8. tiggity Silver badge

    What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

    Given the drones seem to fare badly in rain, wind and ice, what is the point of them in British Weather?

    Not much use if they can only function on warm, dry, still days.

    All the enemy has to do is wait for some (all too frequent) crap British weather and be safe in the knowledge the drones are helpless

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

      All the enemy has to do is wait for some (all too frequent) crap British weather and be safe in the knowledge the drones are helpless

      Waiting for a moment when you can expect little or no resistance is a common tactic in warfare, Has been so at least since the Romans, who simply waited for the Brits to take their tea break.

      1. Steve K Silver badge

        Re: What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

        I can't believe that you had the Gaul to mention that...

      2. WolfFan Silver badge

        Re: What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

        Their _hot water_ break, if you want to be dogmatix about it.

        1. Steve K Silver badge

          Re: What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

          I'd getafix in but I can't edit my post.

      3. genghis_uk

        Re: What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

        So the problem was not manual override - it was always on Fulliautomatix?

        (extra points for Cacofonix or Vitalststistix)

        1. David 132 Silver badge

          Re: What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

          Aaargh, too menhir bad puns.

          1. Thrudd the Barbarian

            Re: What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

            There are no bad puns

            Atrocious, Horrible, Painful, and You [censored] but never bad.

      4. Nick Kew Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

        Perhaps they should commission Gatwixdronix, who demonstrated extremely good capabilities in dark, wet midwinter weather.

      5. Simon Harris Silver badge

        Re: What was the spec? Desert Warfare by mistake?

        "Has been so at least since the Romans, who simply waited for the Brits to take their tea break."

        They Pict their moment carefully.

  9. Dan 55 Silver badge
    Meh

    Just a thought

    Can we test our software properly before we let control things that fly over people, put people inside things it controls, put it inside always-connected devices in our houses, let it add up our money, etc... instead of chopping development time by half, using agile as if it were a development methodology instead of a way ticking off items on a list, cutting back QA, and doing everything else which means marketing/upper management get their bonuses quicker so they can snort it away sooner?

    Every time this happens, the only answer is to develop better code and test it properly, which requires more time.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Just a thought

      the response will be to add another set of meetings to sign off on another requirements doc to ensure that an appendix is issued to all airlines - with a rigorous enforcement regime to ensure it is properly filled in the back of each operation manual 3 ring binder.

      Remember if it's documented it isn't a bug it's a feature.

    2. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

      Re: Just a thought

      "Can we test our software properly"?

      Costs money, you know, even if or especially if you are employing engineer-qualified programmers rather than the cheapest coder off the street. MOD/Treasury are always insisting on the cheapest contracts, so when testing time arrives most of the dosh is already spent.

    3. SkippyBing Silver badge

      Re: Just a thought

      To be fair, that's why they were testing it over the sea and not Cardiff.

    4. cantankerous swineherd

      Re: Just a thought

      testing doesn't show absence of errors:

      https://abnormaldistribution.org/index.php/2009/06/22/formal-methods-in-modern-critical-software-development/

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Just a thought

        Only thing I'd add is that I formally verify the logics involved as well.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Just a thought

      The short answer is no, we apparently can't write good code anymore. No one gives a shit if their code works.

      Look at all of the crap code we have to deal with everyday like Microsoft patches that blue-screen your PC. I think I/we had some idea that aerospace software was somehow different. That when human lives were involved, that the people writing code took a little more care with the code that they write? Maybe in the past this was the case?

      Somehow all of this has changed. People coming out of school now are taught that if it compiles, it's good to go. I think the younger generations are just terminally lazy. Now everything is just "good enough". The "move fast and break things" mentality is actually killing people.

      We have been working with an outside web development company run by a couple of young hipsters, and most of their work is very sloppy. No attention to detail. I keep telling one of the VPs that we should fire their ass. He's not sure a replacement would be any better. All we would do is set the project back, and end up with someone else that writes crap code. He's probably right?

      1. Thrudd the Barbarian

        Re: Just a thought

        We gave them too much space for their code.

        Documentation whats that

        Dont have time for structured programming

        They don't need a remote overide on a test system

      2. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Just a thought

        MVP

  10. }{amis}{ Silver badge
    Coat

    pitot probes

    I wonder if any serious research is going into a successor to pitot probes the design dates back to the 1730s and seems to have a long and sordid relationship with air disasters in general :

    Wiki : Pitot-static related disasters

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: pitot probes

      I wonder if any serious research is going into a successor to pitot probes

      A pitot heater and a temperature sensor should be standard.

      1. Steve K Silver badge

        Re: pitot probes

        They misread the spec and thought it said "pilot heater".

        Since the Watchkeeper is unmanned they thought that they wouldn't need one of those either?

    2. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: pitot probes

      Yes there has been. There's a reason we've been using the design since the 1730s. Because in general it just works. But there are caveats and conditions you have to be aware of when designing a system with a pitot probe or when operating a craft using one.

  11. batfink

    Trialling a new Ice Detection System

    "Sir! The good news is that we have definitely detected some ice!"

    "Well done Corporal! And the bad news?"

    1. Steve K Silver badge

      Re: Trialling a new Ice Detection System

      "Well done Corporal! And the bad news?"

      "Gin detector is on the blink again, Sir"

  12. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Trollface

    "accusations of an MoD cover-up over the troubled multimillion-pound programme"

    Um, which one ? I'm having trouble keeping track.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: "accusations of an MoD cover-up over the troubled multimillion-pound programme"

      That they never actually built any of the drones, they just mashed a few Airfix kits together, removed the strings in MS-Paint and pocketed the money

      Now the auditors are coming they have to explain where all the hardware is.

      1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

        Re: "accusations of an MoD cover-up over the troubled multimillion-pound programme"

        Wasn't there a torpedo project that was actually pretty much like this, except that the strings are part of the design?

  13. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge
    Coat

    Top secret algorithm

    /in_event_of_sensor_loss do:

    /put_the_right_flap_in

    /put_the_right_flap_out

    /in_out_in_out

    /wave_it_all_about

    Apologies for lack of pseudo coding smarts and "flap" sounded better than "tail fin".

    Coat please; mines the one that just fell on the floor :(

  14. eldakka Silver badge
    Coat

    The unmanned aircraft, tail number WK042, fell from the sky in February 2017 while trialling a new ice detection system.

    Sure it wasn't meth dealers trying to sabotage this new ice detection system?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Investigators concluded that one of its pitot probes used for reading the aircraft's speed and angle of attack (AOA) became blocked, causing the Watchkeeper's onboard flight control logic to enter an erratic series of climbs and dives until it stalled itself and flopped into the sea.

    I'm pretty sure that's Boeing's IP. I hope Thales paid royalties.

  16. Conundrum1885

    Harsh

    So if this thing shows up on a beach here, whom do I report it to?

  17. Paul 87

    Finally! A task for machine learning that isn't creepy.

    They should program an a.i. to analyse flight data over tens of thousands of aircraft to build a model of what "normal" looks like, and use that to help handle scenarios when the instruments are malfunctioning.

    For example, some combinations of say airspeed and climb rate simply wouldn't hold up, so if one said you were slowing down, and the other said you were diving, then you can kick in a default of "fly level" or "check other instruments"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Aha. my airspeed and angle of attack measurements aren't consistent so lets fall back to the default safe "fly level" mode - so, lets adjust that angle of attack to level.

  18. Spanners Silver badge
    FAIL

    There is no "black box" on a Watchkeeper.

    WTF not?

    1. ChrisC

      Re: There is no "black box" on a Watchkeeper.

      Perhaps because the full-time datalink back to the ground station provides sufficient realtime system monitoring to make adding a black box an undesirable weight/cost penalty vs the benefits it would offer for incident analysis if a WK crashes after the datalink has failed?

      Perhaps because under normal operating conditions, if a WK is lost, there's a good chance it'll happen somewhere over hostile territory where retrieving the black box may not be possible?

      Perhaps because, unlike civil airliners where there's a very real desire to learn as much as possible from any incident in order to reduce the risk of it happening again, if a WK decides to fall out of the sky for no good reason, TPTB will just shrug their shoulders and remind themselves to +1 the quantity of WK's in next years "spares and replacements" shopping basket?

      1. Patched Out

        Re: There is no "black box" on a Watchkeeper.

        Also if crashed in hostile territory you don't want said hostiles to retrieve the black box, extract the info from it, and be able to reconstruct what this thing was up to...

  19. FionaJC

    I really dont get it, The army have a pilotless drone, the airforce fly things with pilots, including drones, why isnt the Watchkeeper a RAF project? They already hacve a relationship with Thales who make RAF simulators. Why do the Army have helicopters and drones, I know the RAF have thier own troops, maybe the army dont do flying or protecting airfields well enough. How about me employing painters and decorators to cable our installations and bankers to install servers?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Probably because if the RAF have drones then they will insist that "drone flying" is a job that requires a fully trained pilot while if the Army have drones then anyone able to use a games console is able to fly one - and that works out much cheaper.

      1. Thrudd the Barbarian

        Not to mention that the armchair pilot will be better qualified than the overpaid overhyped meatsack that can physically sustain grunting through high g turns that a dtone laughs at.

    2. ChrisC

      Why do the Army have boats? Why does the RN have aircraft? Why does the RAF have ground vehicles? You wouldn't employ a banker to install a server, but what about a server specialist from the bank IT department who's doing some freelance work on the side? Army and Navy pilots might not wear RAF uniforms, but make no mistake, they *are* fully qualified pilots who've earned their wings and the right to fly multi-million pound military aircraft.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Historically, worldwide, different military services have different priorities and viewpoints.

      Either you have a unitary military structure, like the PLA, responsible for everything, or you have multiple services that want very different things.

      Classic example - the US air force doesn't like subsonic, low altitude close support aircraft... which is why they have been trying to retire the A10 for decades, so they can buy more shiny supersonic fighters that can do more 'air forcey' things than close support.

      The US army does not have fixed wing aircraft because the US decided to give those all to the Air Force, who wanted a monopoly on that budget and function, save for the ones that fly off ships or spend all their time at low speed and altitude looking for submarines.

      The US army doesn't trust air force priorities for aircraft design, numbers, and training, but can't have their own fixed wing support aircraft, hence the large number of attack helicopters in army units. Compared to close support fixed wing aircraft they are slow, vulnerable, overly complex, and carry small weapons loads... but they will be built, and they will do what the army considers important. If the army could have their own A10s, they'd love to have them instead of gunships.

      Similar things tend to happen within services between branches. I expect that in the RN, submarine captains want more underwater boats, while surface captains want more surface warships to command - IIRC this is important for their chance of promotion.

      In the US navy the naval aviators have huge influence, hence large numbers (10, more if they can get them) of very expensive carrier battle groups built around huge nuclear powered carriers, each carrying 100+ aircraft. The nuclear sub crew are also influential, and the blue water surface captains have little interest in ships designed for close to shore missions, which they consider a waste of money better spent on more impressive deep ocean combatants.

      Air forces tend to pay more attention to air superiority, strike, recon, and bombers than to maritime patrol, anti-sub, or close support roles.

      It also shows up in role differences. The strategic deterrence guys want long range nukes, the tactical guys want more support, strike, and air defence units...

      Occasionally someone forces common weapons and acquisition on these disparate groups, and you get mediocre or compromised equipment like the F35, where design changes to fit three or four very different roles reduced the capability in all of them, while driving up costs and development times.

      The US can probably live better with this than most prospective users as they also have several dedicated air superiority designs, a couple of good to excellent close support models, dedicated EW planes, strategic stealth aircraft big enough to actually resist VHF radar detection, and so on.

      Unfortunate services trying to do all this with one aircraft type that happens to be partially stealthy in some directions to some types of detection as long as it limits its load to a few internally carried weapons, and which can perform adequately as long as it doesn't have to go fast, or maneuver, or try to shoot at something with its gun, or operate without massive computer support at its base, or fly more than one mission every three days per plane... might wish they had something trying less hard to be all things to all people.

      That's why each service wants its own custom designed toys under their control and planning structure.

  20. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    And drone number 461-23-B, network call sign "Reginald Perrin" was never seen again.

  21. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Similarities to Boeing?

    Thales subcontracted with the same third world IT company to write their flight control software?

  22. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    FAIL

    Proberly flew just fine over Toulouse

    In the South of France, where most of the French aircraft industry is located

  23. ATeal

    Just to confirm:

    They literally (not like "training issue") can't control where it crashes beyond working out with some trig and iffy assumptions where it'll land if we tell it to go somewhere from a certain direction?

    OMFG...

  24. fishdog

    The Drone is Fine

    Reads like a perfect ice detection test to me.

  25. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

    So it works just as well as your average modern airliner then...

  26. Lexeus

    This is just another case like the Apache. The government gets to announce that they are bringing X percent of the money to UK companies by developing our UK version of the Apache software and buying the aircraft from the USA. Then what happens, they discover the software is actually more expensive to make per aircraft than the hardware.

    In this case, they decided to bring Drone development to UK industry, and to save money some accountant opted not to have the ability of the manual remote flight control. Any engineer can tell you that a real flight trial is going to have an issue of some sort, and autopilot is going to go wrong some time!

  27. MikeM271048

    I have an idea that an earlier version of this aircraft earned the nickname "The Bugger Off", because it never returned to its controllers.

  28. mhenriday
    Pint

    The joys of language

    descended rapidly into the sea
    Exquisite !...

    Henri

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