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Another Drone Goes Down Raising Speculation About Drone Virus From Sept.

"suspicious that two drones were downed in such a short amount of time"

For the second time in the last two weeks, another American military drone has gone down, adding to the questions of why and how.

This second drone, which had been used to monitor piracy off the East African coast, crashed at an airport on the island nation of Seychelles during a routine patrol, officials said Tuesday. The first, an RQ-170 was downed led last week; Iranians claim to have shot it down, while the U.S. states it was not shot down. The Iranians have since revealed footage of captured drone and have refused the U.S. government's request for its return, but state they will use it to make their own.

The U.S. Embassy in Mauritius said the unmanned U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper that crashed Tuesday was not armed and caused no injuries, although it did spark a fire that was quickly extinguished.

Lina Laurence of Seychelles' civilian aviation authority said the drone developed engine problems minutes into its flight and needed to land as soon as possible.

"But due to its accelerated landing speed, the aircraft was unable to stop before the runway's end," Laurence said.

The statement issued says this second crash is being investigated, but there has been some speculation on the Internet as to whether the two drone crashes are related to an unknown computer virus reported to be infecting drones at Creech Air Force Base in September, a story which Wired's Danger Room broke in October. Here's what was said of the virus then:

“We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back,” says a source familiar with the network infection, one of three that told Danger Room about the virus. “We think it’s benign. But we just don’t know.”

Military network security specialists aren’t sure whether the virus and its so-called “keylogger” payload were introduced intentionally or by accident; it may be a common piece of malware that just happened to make its way into these sensitive networks. The specialists don’t know exactly how far the virus has spread. But they’re sure that the infection has hit both classified and unclassified machines at Creech. That raises the possibility, at least, that secret data may have been captured by the keylogger, and then transmitted over the public internet to someone outside the military chain of command.


The Air Force declined to comment directly on the virus. “We generally do not discuss specific vulnerabilities, threats, or responses to our computer networks, since that helps people looking to exploit or attack our systems to refine their approach,” says Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for Air Combat Command, which oversees the drones and all other Air Force tactical aircraft. “We invest a lot in protecting and monitoring our systems to counter threats and ensure security, which includes a comprehensive response to viruses, worms, and other malware we discover.”

Now Business Insider and RT.com, among others, have questioned whether the virus and the downed drones are merely a coincidence. Business Insider notes that the drones the virus was likely to affect were Reapers or Predators, but the RQ-170s also fly out of Creech:

If the Iranians somehow breached the drone network and were able to reprogram the drone to make a gentle landing, in country, from 50,000 feet, it would be a military and engineering coup.

The RQ-170 doesn't require an outside signal to fly or navigate, so the suggestion that the drones signal could have been jammed is not entirely likely.

At the time, the Air Force downplayed the computer virus and explained it was merely a "keystroke logger" meaning it could have captured passwords and usernames of users and planes in the network.

RT.com calls it "suspicious" that two drones were downed in such a short amount of time and throws out the possibility that it could be in retaliation for an alleged cyber attack on Iran last year:

Stuxnet, a 2010 computer warm that targeted Iranian nuclear facilities, was suspected to be perpetrated by American intelligence agencies, much to their dismissal.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a medium-to-high altitude unmanned aircraft system with sensors that can provide real-time data. The Seychelles-based MQ-9s, which are used to monitor piracy activities in and around the Indian Ocean, don't carry weapons, though they have the capability to do so.

Tuesday's crash follows last week's claim by Iran that it seized a drone identified as the RQ-170 Sentinel. Tehran said it was captured over the country's east. The nearly intact drone was displayed on state TV and flaunted as a victory for Iran in a complicated intelligence and technological battle with the U.S.

U.S. officials said the unmanned aircraft malfunctioned and was not brought down by Iran. President Barack Obama said Monday the U.S. wants the top-secret aircraft back and has delivered a formal request for the return of the surveillance drone, though it isn't hopeful that Iran will comply.

The U.S. has used drones to hunt down al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia and Yemen, among other countries. Their humming is a constant feature in the sky in many of the major towns in southern Somalia, especially the capital city and the militant-controlled southern port of Kismayo. It was not clear if drones operated out of the Seychelles are used for that purpose.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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