By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
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.
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.