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Pilotless plane to fly routinely in civilian airspace

 
13:39 21 August 03
 
NewScientist.com news service
 

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.


Pre-programmed mission

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 operator.

 
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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."

 

Duncan Graham-Rowe

 

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