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Missing Chad drone may have tried to fly home

An unmanned surveillance drone being used by Irish peacekeepers in Chad which went missing after being deployed in the desert may have tried to fly back to the Curragh, 3000 miles away.

The drone, part of a portable mini Unmanned Aeriel Vehicle (UAV) system, lost contact with base 25 minutes after it was deployed.

It was one of two Irish army drones which have have been put out of commission, at a cost of €70,000.

One theory is that the drone, which is programmed to return to base when contact is severed with its Ground Control Station (GCS), may have still had the co-ordinates of the Curragh camp in its computer programme, rather than the Irish headquarters near Goz Beida in south-eastern Chad. The Israeli-manufactured UAVs, operated by army communications personnel, are used for surveillance, artillery spotting and support for special forces.

At the end of its mission, the Orbiter drone is programmed to enter Return Home Mode, either on a command from its operator or automatically if contact is lost.

The drone then returns to its pre-programmed recovery point and deploys its parachute.

It is feared that during familiarisation and training at the Curragh, the coordinates of the Irish Army camp in Kildare may have been programmed into the drone.

When deployed in the harsh desert terrain in Chad last March, it tried to fly "home" but ran out of battery and crashed into the desert -- about 2,990 miles from its destination.

The drones have a flight time of 1.5 hours and a range of 15 km.

The Department of Defence contract with Aeronautics Defence Systems Ltd of Israel for two of their Orbiter systems was worth €780,000.

Later in the summer, another drone was lost after it was launched during an incident in Goz Beida when rebels forced their way into a refugee camp and started firing over the heads of Irish peacekeepers. The drone was later recovered by Irish forces but was damaged.

But the first drone has still not been found and until it is recovered the theory that it was inadvertently programmed to return to Ireland can not be definitively confirmed, Defence Force sources insist. "It's speculation.We still haven't found it so we can't say what went wrong," a spokesman said.

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Last week it emerged that the Defence Forces chief of staff Lieut Gen Dermot Earley has apologised to the Minister for Defence, Willie O'Dea, for putting him in a "difficult position" after it was discovered two helicopters hired for €2.4m in Chad to carry Irish troops were not certified to ferry personnel.

In a report sent to the minister, Lieut Gen Earley cited "miscommunication in the military chain of command" and an "excess of zeal" to procure the helicopters as the reasons for the oversight.

He said the need to get air transport in place before the onset of the rainy season in Chad had added to the haste.

"The control measures then in place were not successful," Lieut Gen Earley stated.

At the same time, Irish peacekeepers in Africa have been involved in a number of high risk operations to aid the local population and aid workers.Early last month, Irish troops and French special forces serving in Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) evacuated a group of aid agency workers during a gun fight with armed militia.

The airborne evacuation took place in the remote region of Birao in the southeast of the Central African Republic as part of the EU peace enforcement mission.

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