A major disaster was averted on Tuesday morning when an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) of the Pakistan Navy crashed inside the premises of the National Oil Refinery in Korangi. Even though there were no injuries on the ground and all installations remained safe from possible damage, the stock price of the National Refinery fell by Rs7.98 to close at Rs364.88 at the Karachi Stock Exchange.
Officially, Pakistan Navy says that the ill-fated UAV was a “small remote-controlled aircraft” on a “routine mission” that crashed when it “hit an eagle” during mid flight between 9:30 and 10 am. Officials said that the aircraft had a wing span of around 10 feet which is typically used for target practice. One spokesperson said that the aircraft was almost ‘toy like’ and nothing serious had occurred.
However, sources within Pakistan Navy and the local drone manufacturing industry told The Express Tribune that the pilotless aircraft was a mid range tactical UAV called the Uqaab, which is typically used for surveillance missions. The locally-manufactured Uqaab has a wing span of about 20 feet, weighs more than 200kgs and its 550cc engine runs on gasoline
“Had this 200-kg aircraft hit an oil depot, the consequences would have been disastrous,” one drone expert revealed.
This heavy machine that is typically fitted with sensors and high-powered still and video cameras, was flown from the PNS Mehran base, which in the recent past faced the brunt of an attack by terrorists. Since the attack on the Mehran base, Pakistan Navy has increased surveillance in areas surrounding all of its bases. Although the Uqaab has not been formally inducted into service by Pakistan Navy and has been in the trial phase with the armed forces for many months, it is being used for reconnaissance missions along the bay and coastal areas of the city. Even before the attacks, the unarmed drones have been flown from PNS Mehran many times before this incident, a navy official said.
Sources say that it is highly unlikely that a bird caused the crash. “The Uqaab has a fibre glass body and a propeller engine at its back. It would take an eagle made of steel with razor wings to bring it down,” according to one drone expert, who stressed on the absurdity of the claim. According to him, like many other mid-range tactical UAVs, the Uqaab, too, has had issues, including flight control algorithm problems and mechanical failure.
The National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) had indigenously developed the Uqaab in collaboration with some local scientists.
Chief Fire Officer Ehteshaam Siddiqui said two fire brigades were moved to the area immediately after the incident. However, police and Rangers posted at the gate of the refinery did not allow them to enter the area.
SP Korangi Usman Ghani said that when police entered the refinery there was no fire, although the wreckage of the aircraft was scattered in the area.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2011.