Crash stirs debate on drone safety
Updated 8/6/2006 10:59 PM ET E-mail | Save | Print | Subscribe to stories like this
This Predator B unmanned drone, which can weigh up to 10,500 pounds, slammed into a hillside near Nogales, Ariz., on April 25.
By Mae Duggin
This Predator B unmanned drone, which can weigh up to 10,500 pounds, slammed into a hillside near Nogales, Ariz., on April 25.
The explosion nearly jolted Barbara Trent out of bed. At first she thought someone had bombed the high-desert scrubland where she lives in southern Arizona.

When daylight arrived a few hours later April 25, Trent and her neighbors realized that what they heard wasn't a bomb at all. Instead, an unmanned drone the government uses to monitor the nearby Mexican border had slammed into a hillside near several homes.

The Predator B, which weighs as much as 10,500 pounds and has a wingspan of 66 feet, had been crippled when its operator accidentally switched off its engine. It glided as close as 100 feet above two homes before striking the ground, says Tom Duggin, the owner of one of the houses. "If it had hit my house, I'd be dead," says Trent, whose home is about 1,000 feet from the crash site.

Flight issues

The crash of the Customs and Border Protection plane has been a catalyst heating up the debate over whether it is safe to operate unmanned aerial vehicles in the nation's airways. Thousands of UAVs regularly fly the skies above the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. As pressure grows to put the UAVs to use in the USA, federal officials and aviation industry representatives are discussing how unmanned aircraft should be regulated.

FEARS OF FLIGHTS:Safety a concern as drones catch on

The debate also addresses the philosophy of what it means to fly. In a sense, UAVs are the first example of robot-like devices roaming the Earth, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology aviation professor John Hansman.

The questions they raise are profound. Can a machine replace the skills of a veteran pilot? If there are no people aboard, should the safety standards developed over the past 100 years for aircraft be eased? Should a human controlling a drone from a desktop computer be subject to the same standards as a traditional pilot?

"The increased use of unmanned aircraft by (the military) is certainly challenging some of the long-held beliefs of organizations that have worked aviation safety for a long time," says Dyke Weatherington, who oversees UAV procurement at the Pentagon.  from this link


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