back to article Latvian drone wrests control from human overlords and shuts down entire nation's skies

Latvia’s skies have been closed to long distance flights because a military-grade drone is “uncontrolled and lost” somewhere above the eastern European nation – and nobody knows where it has gone. Local news website Apollo reported over the weekend that a test flight went disastrously wrong when a Latvian drone firm lost …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Phone Gatwick

    The people at Gatwick don't have much to do at the moment and they're expert drone hunters so why not send them over to help? In fact, feel free to keep them!

    1. EvilDrSmith Bronze badge
      Joke

      Re: Phone Gatwick

      Harsh....what did the people of Latvia ever do to you?

    2. NoneSuch Silver badge
      FAIL

      Solid SSH Keys

      I'm betting the Russians have a new drone to study after figuring out the drone had a powerful password on their radio link of 1234 or some such.

      "No need for security; it's not in the field yet..."

      It just wouldn't surprise me.

      1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: Solid SSH Keys

        It might well be in one.....just not in one piece.

    3. Undefined Variable
      Black Helicopters

      Long range?

      If it managed 90 hours of flight at 70km/h, that would make 6,300km - rather more than just Latvian airspace.

      Latvia is apparently only 1,739km away from the UK... Mind your heads!

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: Long range?

        Maybe it wasn't a V-22 Osprey I saw* flying from north to South towards Leuchars yesterday!

        *Heard first, then saw. Quite impressive.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      WTF?

      Even my cheap Chinese drone flies itself home & lands if it loses communication.

      1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        Re: WTF?

        Wow, all the way to China!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Might help:

    https://imgur.com/mcKe1k5

    /anon drone enthusiast

  3. foo_bar_baz
    Terminator

    ROTM

    IFOWON Skynet robot overlords.

  4. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
    FAIL

    "During a controlled test flight ..."

    ^ some might disagree with that description.

    1. Brian Miller Silver badge

      Re: "During a controlled test flight ..."

      Well, it did have somebody twiddling knobs and such. Just because the on-board system decided that it was a great time to take a holiday shouldn't be seen in a bad light.

      Rise of the machines: we're off to the beach. You fleshies can keep working.

  5. Alister Silver badge

    I take it Latvia don't own any RADAR then?

    I mean it's not small, it's the size of a light aircraft.

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      @Alister.

      I was thinking the same ting. Perhaps it has really good stealth capabilities, if a NATO member can't find a continuously flying plane in ninety hours, their membership may need a rethink.

      1. Mr Sceptical
        Black Helicopters

        Wot no AWACS?

        For that matter, don't they just need to call up the nearest NATO AWACS to find out where it is? Don't NATO keep a very close eye on everything flying in the European Theatre becuase of the Bears?

        Or did they sell them all off / scrap them all?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Wot no AWACS?

          "Don't NATO keep a very close eye on everything flying "

          Maybe NATO run their surveillance on similar principles to JORN in Australia - 9 to 5 only, no cover on national holidays, etc unless there's a pre-arranged war on and pre-approved overtime for the necessary personnel.

    2. Matthew Brasier

      600ft is too low for primary air traffic service radars. Radar installations are placed on high ground and look upwards, there is too much "noise" near the ground for them to be any use. They are intended to assist in deconflicting and dispatching search and rescue for aircraft, and laws generally prohibit aircraft flying below 500ft other than during take off or landing. The radar at the local airport I fly from (or did when such things were possible) can't see aircraft below about 1400ft. As such a drone flying at 600ft is literally under the radar.

      1. rgmiller1974

        Also, civilian air traffic control radars don't really detect the airplanes themselves; they detect the radar transponders installed in airplanes. If the drone doesn't have one (or it was turned off for the test flight), then air traffic control radars aren't going to be much use even if the drone flies through an area where there is ostensibly radar coverage.

        1. Trigonoceps occipitalis

          RADAR

          Airports run two types of RADAR. Primary RADAR is the traditional bounce EM radiation off the metal bits and detect the reflection. Secondary RADAR (not strictly RADAR) detects a radio signal reply generated by aircraft systems. Both are useful and fill slightly different functions.

          The particular advantage of secondary RADAR is that the squawk will identify the individual aircraft.

        2. swm Silver badge

          When I was in a control tower in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the late 1960's the radar reliably showed returns off of planes near Chicago, Illinois about 60 miles away. With a light pen we could even see the transponder codes there. They used a moving target canceller that deleted returns from non-moving objects. When that was turned off I could see all of the street buildings in down town Milwaukee and nothing useful for about 4 miles because of ground returns.

          I imagine that RADAR technology is much better now.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          > Also, civilian air traffic control radars don't really detect the airplanes [sic] themselves

          That's what Brasier was referring to by "primary radar". ATS radars generally consist of both primary and secondary systems. What you're trying to describe is called secondary radar.

          Military radars are of course a different story but if you were to use them you'd be giving away valuable information about their capabilities.

      2. Alister Silver badge

        But why are you all talking about civilian airport RADAR?

        Surely Latvia has some military RADAR which does work under 600ft AGL

        1. phuzz Silver badge

          If the radar* is picking up returns from below a sensible altitude then you get reflections from the ground, and everything on it (trees, buildings etc.). If you implement a speed gate and only show object that are moving then you pick up every vehicle, large trees, waves etc.

          The difficulty with picking an altitude which avoids ground clutter then becomes hills...

          * Radar is one of those acronyms that doesn't need to be capitalised in general usage.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Surely. And the opposition would love to know more about them, which is why using them when you're not actually being invaded is not such a great idea.

    3. Lars Silver badge
      Joke

      A very light aircraft indeed of 26kg in aviation-standard units or not.

    4. martinusher Silver badge

      >I mean it's not small, it's the size of a light aircraft.

      Its about the size of a typical giant scale model aircraft. The wing span is about average for a R/C sailplane but its a bit longer than these craft.

      As for 'military grade' -- that just means 'expensive'. Its been well over a decade since the first powered model crossed the Atlantic (it was R/C controlled at both ends for takeoff and landing but it was autonomous over the ocean) and proper R/C dones have been a significant, if increasingly underground, part of the hobby for at least a decade. (The difference between 'official' and 'unofficial' is that amateur organizations don't like models flying outside the line of sight, it spooks the authorities who are proposing ever more draconian regulations in order to somehow reverse time, regulations that could make model flying a bit of a chore).

      BTW -- What a lot of people think of as a drone, the humble quadcopter, is a relatively recent type of flying thing. They are effectively impossible to fly without sophisticated control electronics. A properly set up sailplane, OTOH, can literally fly all day in the right conditions. A lot of military surveillance planes like this one are really just upgraded sailplanes with a motor assist and a 'sensor package' (the bit the Latvians will be worried about, it not only costs the big bucks but itts the sort of thing that people like the Russians would love a close look at).

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        I doubt the Latvians will have anything in their sensor package so advanced the Russians (or the 'mercans) would be even remotely surprised about or interested in it.

        1. doublelayer Silver badge

          Don't count on that. There are two major reasons to want to look at the tech in a craft like this:

          To steal it for your own drones: On this I agree with you. The Russians almost certainly have better and don't want that.

          To plan for what you would need if you ever wanted to evade them. This the Russians might want to do. If they want to invade the Baltic states, they can't risk a very rapid NATO response (assuming that could even happen). They can hope for delays in contact to other NATO members, or they can try to do as much as possible before detection. Evading aerial detection would be a good first step. If this drone is meant for combat rather than detection, you could learn to identify and catch it.

          All that said, we currently don't know the Russians have stolen it. I'd buy it, but there's also a possibility that the communications system crashed and they have a plane flying off into the middle of nowhere with nobody controlling.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        As an occasional pilot of light aircraft - I can say I am not upset by the increasingly draconian attempts to limit the use of drones. Sailplanes and other aircraft that require significant skill and an understanding of the principles of flight and airodynamics are not a problem because the people flying them know what they are doing. The problem is the quadcopter types that you mention - that people buy online then launch into the sky with no understanding of the type of airspace they are in or the conditions they are flying it in. Landing a single engine-engine piston aircraft is already exciting enough without having to deal with hitting a small but fairly solid object during final and finding that suddenly one wing is producing more lift than the other, or that your elevator makes you spiral rather than elevate.

        In my opinion drone flying should be limited to club members, with clubs regulated to ensure their members have a good understanding of the relevant rules and the limitations of their aircraft.

      3. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

        @martinusher

        The first autonomous model-sized sailplane, aka the ALOFT Project first flew in 2007. It was an off-the-shelf 5m span carbon airframe but fitted with a very interesting autopilot that could navigate round a preset task while finding and using the thermals it needed to finish the task. It was a successful PhD project for its developer/builder/pilot and was allowed to fly in one of the Californian RC cross country competitions. These are multi-day events with each day's task being anything up the 100km round 2 - 4 turnpoints with the pilots flying from the backseat of a convertible or an armchair on the back of a truck as they follow the glider round the task. ALOFT won one day and placed well in the overall comp. It was hand flown for launch and landing and fully autonomous for something like 95-96% of each flight.

        A good internet search will find quite a lot about it including autopilot details.

    5. Jan 0

      Considering it's massive size and minimal mass, it sounds as if it's mostly balsawood and tissue paper. No so good for radar unless they upgrade the tissue to aluminised mylar:)

    6. Alan_Peery

      It's flying pretty low, so easier to miss on radar.

  6. Neil Barnes Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    You would think...

    that knowing where the bloody thing is is a fundamental requirement of this sort of device...

    1. Steve K Silver badge

      Re: You would think...

      Maybe it’s a stealth one?

      1. seven of five Silver badge

        Re: You would think...

        Well, it is now.

        1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: You would think...

          Have they checked the nearby trees?

  7. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "Latvian airspace could be closed for most of this week"

    Um, what's to say that Latvia is the only country that can be affected ? At 70km/h for 90 hours, that's a potential 6300km distance. Even if it's going around in circles, there's a possibility that it goes over a border somewhere, given that Latvia seems to be barely 600 km wide and lass than half of that high (on the map, that is).

    Oh, and who was the genius that thought it was a good idea for a test to fill the tank for 90-hour flight capability ? If you're doing a 2-hour test, give it 5 hours of fuel, that'll be largely enough. I think somebody thought "to hell with this, I'll fill 'er up this week so they won't bother me with this until next week".

    1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

      Re: "Latvian airspace could be closed for most of this week"

      Where did you get the idea that this was intended to be a short flight from? Not in El Reg's story.

      Its quite possible, even likely, that this was expected to be a 90 hour flight: sometime while testing a new aircraft its builders need to show that it can be launched and climb away at MTOW just as you also need to demonstrate that it can fly for the full 90 hours without running out of fuel or having the control system fail.

      Just running the engine on the ground for 90 hours proves nothing: you need a successful maximum duration air test to prove that the aircraft can meet requirements which likely include flying reliably for 90 hours without anything breaking or running out of fuel and, presumably, while covering more than 6000km to prove that it can average 70km/h over a long flight.

      In any case, this is clearly a failed test flight, so just as well it happened before the thing was declared operational and carrying nasty stuff rather than the ballast to be expected on a test flight of this type.

      1. amphetkid

        Re: "Latvian airspace could be closed for most of this week"

        Speaking to contacts here, it was a UAVfactory VTOL drone which lost contact with its controller at take off and instead of shutting down, the drone has been doing circuits all over Latvia, with a AN24 plane chasing it to try and regain control. It was meant to be a extended duration test but within a confined airspace (read NATO FOB) but it went awry.

        No special tech, just the VTOL capabilities.

        On the plus side, it is setting a new record for drone flight time endurance in its weight category.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Test. Yeah, thought so/

  9. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Sounds like a job for Airwolf

    Quick, someone call Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine!

    1. Bluto Nash

      Re: Sounds like a job for Airwolf

      "Quick, someone call Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine!"

      Warming up my Ouija board now, sir!

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It was at least partially successful

    It did, indeed, take off.

    :)

    1. Irongut Silver badge

      Re: It was at least partially successful

      For Boeing that would be an unqualified success! (c.f. Starliner)

  11. Povl H. Pedersen

    RTC

    In case of comms lost, it likely has an emergency procedure. A few years ago, drones always entered into RTC mode (Return to China).

    So look east, likely somewhere into Russia.

    Still do not understand why loss of radio would cause loss of drone. As I would see it, it would either return to launch point, a preprogrammed coordinate set (maybe (0,0) if not set, or continue its operation for 90 hours, but then they would know where it is. Assume it lost GPS, then it should have another fallback option. Say land, continue straight ahead as best as it can using gyros, or maybe pup-up to a safe altitude before doing so.

    They need eyes in the skies and ground search radar.

  12. Valeyard

    Good timing

    No one wants to fly anyway

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    UFO

    So a UFO is flying around and they are freaking out so much the cancelled all air traffic.

    The aliens are just looking for a good race. We need faster jets to play.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Well done

    There is no point in failing, unless you are going to do so in memorably spectacular fashion.

    I think this qualifies.

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