The US Air Force's Global Hawk became the first pilotless
aeroplane to be given permission to fly routinely in civilian
airspace on Thursday.
The US Federal Aviation Administration issued the USAF and
Northrop Grumman, who make the jet plane, a certificate of
authorisation (COA) allowing the RQ-4 Global Hawk to enter national
airspace with almost as much ease as a piloted plane.
Previously the USAF was required to file a detailed flight plan
with the FAA at least 30 days in advance. Now the majority of the
red tape has been cut making it possible for an unarmed Global Hawk
to "file-and-fly" even on the same day. The first use of the new COA
will be a flight to Germany in October.
According to Northrop Grumman, the Global Hawk's ability to
see-and-avoid other aircraft has convinced the FAA that it is safe.
Moreover, during its missions Global Hawk is programmed to climb to
altitudes over 60,000 feet, well above commercial traffic.
However, air safety campaigners are horrified. "I think this is
really insane," says Gail Dunham of the National Air Disaster
Alliance, a pressure group based in Washington DC. "I understand the
need to have military drones," says Dunham. But they should be
restricted to military airspace only, she says.
Global Hawks carry out pre-programmed missions and are monitored
by pilots from the ground via a satellite link. The plane was the
first pilotless aircraft to cross the Pacific Ocean, a 22-hour
mission involving just two "clicks" of a mouse from the ground
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The previous 30-day notice period allowed time to scrutinise both
the flight plan and the support infrastructure required to track and
control the plane. But Northrop Grumman's spokeswoman told New
Scientist that the performance and safety record of the Global
Hawk, especially during military operations in Afghanistan, has now
demonstrated its reliability.
The USAF has only ever lost three Global Hawks, says Northrop
Grumman. The first was during the plane's development, when someone
accidentally tested the self-destruct program. As a result the plane
flew to a pre-programmed, remote location and nose-dived into ground
as its operators looked on helplessly. Since then two more were lost
while flying in combat zones.
However, Pentagon data on the number of crashes per hours flown
show that the Global Hawk has a crash rate 50 times higher than the
F-16 fighter, a plane that frequently flies more dangerous missions
and at lower altitudes.
Northrop Grumman is hoping to get similar grants for its armed
version of the Global Hawk. But such military grants are just the
thin end of the wedge for Dunham: "My concern is that commercial
airlines are interested in applications like this too."