Taking The Pilot Out Of Flying

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Unmanned Aircraft Seen As "The Hope For The Future"

While unmanned aircraft, for obvious reasons, are an increasingly popular option for the military, drone builders are now expanding their horizons to the civilian market. This became apparent at last week's Paris Air Show, a venue traditionally known for exhibiting the best specimens of manned aircraft. With the success of drones -- like the Global Hawk -- in recent military conflicts, the recent buzz seems to concentrate on the use of this technology for commercial purposes. We needn't go far to see non-military drones already in use. The Helios, an unmanned solar-powered flying wing, shattered the world altitude record for non-rocket-powered aircraft in 2001. The aircraft successfully flew to 96,863 feet, powered solely by silicon solar cells mounted on its wing. The aircraft is now being prepared for another major milestone -- the world's first multi-day fuel-cell-powered flight in the stratosphere. NASA is looking into developing this technology as a test bed for the possibility of using these types of aircraft for commercial purposes.

...But How Safe Are They?

So, how safe would our skies be with a fleet of unmanned aircraft flying around? The U.S. government has asked NASA to research advanced collision-avoidance technology. You may remember AVweb's recent reporting on this program, which detailed this equipment and the role it may play in future development programs. One such system, ERAST, gives remotely piloted aircraft the ability to detect "incoming obstacles" at a range of six nautical miles. In theory, this would give the drone time to signal its ground-based pilot, who would follow up with necessary corrective action. In the meantime, it's not likely drones will replace manned aircraft anytime soon but as more unmanned aircraft enter the airspace it will be interesting to compare the safety records of each category.