WASHINGTON — The U.S. military almost launched fighter jets and discussed a possible shoot-down when an errant Navy drone briefly veered into restricted airspace near the nation's capital last month, a senior military official said Thursday.
The incident underscores safety concerns with unmanned aircraft as defense officials campaign to use them more often during natural disasters and for homeland security.
Navy Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., head of Northern Command, said Thursday that the August mishap could hamper the Pentagon's push to have the Federal Aviation Administration ease procedures for drone use by the military in domestic skies.
Currently drones are used for patrols and surveillance along the nation's southern border, and sometimes at the northern border. But the military wants to use them more during hurricanes and other disasters to evaluate damage or target rescue efforts.
The FAA has been working for some time on new regulations governing the use of drones, but has yet to complete them. And the August incident brought one of the FAA's key concerns to bear — the prospect that remote operators can lose communications with the aircraft.
Winnefeld said he was in the operations center watching when controllers lost the link to their Navy MQ-8B Fire Scout during a test at the naval air station at Patuxent River, Md., and it flew into the capital region's restricted airspace.
As the fighter jets were about to be launched, he said, the Navy was able to reprogram the helicopter-like craft and bring it back.