Public Safety

FAA investigates crash of $300,000 University of Iowa drone

No one hurt, but wreck illustrates risk of 100-pound craft

The Latitude HQ90B, a research drone owned by the University of Iowa's Operator Performance Laboratory, is shown here in
The Latitude HQ90B, a research drone owned by the University of Iowa’s Operator Performance Laboratory, is shown here in a still photo from a Sept. 25, 2018, YouTube video of its first flight. The $300,000 drone was destroyed Dec. 18, 2019, when it crashed into a yard near the Iowa City Airport. (UI photo)
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IOWA CITY — The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating what caused a $300,000 research drone owned by the University of Iowa to crash Dec. 18, leaving a fiery wreck in a densely packed mobile home park near the Iowa City Airport.

The Latitude HQ90B, a 100-pound drone with an 18-foot wingspan, “became unresponsive” during the afternoon flight and crashed in a yard at the Lake Ridge mobile home park, the UI reported.

In a video posted on Facebook, Kalvin Butterbaugh, who lives on Bay Ridge Drive, coughs as he walks through smoke from the smoldering debris in his yard. One wing is shattered by the deck stairs, while several feet away sits what appears to be a parachute severed from the rest of the broken drone.

“You don’t have a hose or anything?” a woman asks Butterbaugh, who seems stunned by the crash.

YouTube is full of drone crash videos in which small, recreational drones hit buildings or trees or the ground, sometimes dramatically. But the UI drone crash points out the real risk to nearby humans when a remote-controlled drone as large as a small plane falls out of the sky.

In August, a Swiss drone delivery service was suspended indefinitely when a 22-pound drone able to carry packages of up to 4.4 pounds crashed in Zurich about 50 yards away from where children were playing, the Verge reported. The drone had an emergency parachute, but the cord became disconnected, resulting in an uncontrolled crash. No one was injured.

The Washington Post reported in 2016 that 20 large Air Force drones had crashed in the previous year on training missions in the United States and in combat zones around the world.

UI Research Drones

The Latitude HQ90B that crashed in Johnson County was owned by the UI’s Operator Performance Laboratory, a simulation and flight-testing research lab within the UI College of Engineering. The fixed-wing, single-engine drone was purchased in 2018 to test visual navigation functions for commercial drone applications.

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A video of its maiden flight was posted Sept. 25, 2018, to YouTube.

The UI long has had a partnership with Collins Aerospace (formerly Rockwell Collins) to test avionics systems. The company provided funding and equipment for the project, the UI reported.

The lab owns four other drones, only one of which is being used now for research, the UI said.

The Vapor 55, an electric helicopter drone weighing 55 pounds and costing about $80,000, is used to carry light detection and measuring systems as well as other payloads. The three other drones, built by lab staff, each weigh about 65 pounds and cost $20,000.

Tom Schnell, a UI professor of industrial and systems engineering and lab director, was remotely operating the HQ90B on Dec. 18 to test visual navigation functions for commercial drone applications. The flight started at the Iowa City Airport and was intended to be limited to the airport property, the UI reported.

Schnell, a commercial pilot who also is certified to fly drones, declined to be interviewed because of the ongoing investigations by the UI, manufacturer and the FAA.

“This doesn’t seem like the right time since there isn’t much I can add until we know the root cause,” Schnell said in an email. “Once the investigation has concluded, I would be happy to discuss all we have going on at the OPL.”

Review Continues

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the crash, declined to provide its report or photos of the crash, saying it had forwarded the information to the FAA.

Previous news reports said the FAA doesn’t investigate crashes of aircraft under 300 pounds, but FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said that is not accurate.

“As part of its regulatory authority, the FAA investigates all aviation accidents and incidents,” she said, confirming a probe of the crash.

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People have registered nearly 1.5 million drones with the FAA, about two-thirds of which are for commercial purposes, Isham Cory said.

That’s almost four times as many registered drones as registered manned aircraft.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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