By CNN Senior National Security Producer Charley Keyes
A collision between a drone and a cargo plane in Afghanistan this week echoed all the way to Washington, revving up a debate on when the unmanned vehicles will soar over American skies.
The 450-pound remotely-piloted drone–the RQ-7 known as the Shadow– hit a C130 on Monday, destroying the drone, damaging the big jet and forcing an emergency landing.
The accident gave proponents of unmanned air systems a chance to trumpet how successful they have been in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We have more than 1.3-million flying hours on unmanned aircraft systems without something like this happening," said Tim Owings of the Army's Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
And he calls the collision, "a very, very rare event."
And of course, the conditions that the Shadow and its sister craft endure is severe, "in combat conditions, very dangerous conditions, very dirty environments." Owings said. "The systems are quite safe, quite reliable and they have been doing great work."
Owings was one of thousands of people wandering this week through acres of exhibits in the Washington Convention Center at the annual show of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
In a giant mesh cage, inventors can show off their latest zooming, whirling drones that can beam back high-definition color pictures of the enemy burying explosives in an Afghanistan road.
Closer to home, they can show the course of a wildfire in the American west or the size of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"There are no two alike," Insitu executive Paul McDuffee, who was at the exhibit, said about the number of unmanned systems.
"They are like snowflakes. These systems are designed to perform a specific function, the real product of UAS (unmanned air systems) is not the flying platform itself it is the data it delivers."
And McDuffee and others point out that the demand for drones and other airborne gizmos is growing back home, especially as soldiers who had them in their military tool-kit wonder why they don't have the same technology on their civilian jobs.
"For example you have people lost on skiing expeditions or mountain climbing, these systems are tailor-made to go into very hostile weather conditions, and change the calculus of a situation and by that I mean you're no longer worried about the risk of a guy flying through a snow storm," Owings said.
"You use an unmanned system to go, spot people and save lives. And that's really the benefit we provide, saving lives in theater and I think there is an equal benefit state-side as well."
But while proponents of unmanned aircraft want to see those benefits, they aren't holding their breath.
McDuffee predicts that the Federal Aviation Administration may approve some drone use by an estimated 2025 deadline, but the technology for unmanned aircraft to detect and evade potential problems needs more work.
However, he said, the technological solution is probably out there on the giant floor of the AUVSI exhibit.
"That is really the heart and soul of the real issue that faces our industry, how do you safely integrate all of this capability into our national airspace so we can start deploying these systems for commercial use - that is the bottom line," McDuffee said.
And he thinks the FAA was caught off guard about how many unmanned aircraft were coming on line and how to protect the public in the air and on the ground.
"I think it was their belief that this was simply an annoyance. They really never fully understood or appreciated what the total impact of this technology was going to be in the near term," McDuffee said.
"They now realize this is a much bigger, bigger problem, that UAS are here to stay, they are going to have to wrestle with the issue."
And senior military officers are calling for the industry to speed up and offer up new machines.
Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch told inventors, scientists and corporate executives attending the conference that he begins his day at the Pentagon by looking at laminated cards with the names and faces of the 153 soldiers lost when he was commanding troops in the early days of fighting in Iraq.
He says he could have benefited from the drones' "persistent stare" to check on insurgents planning an attack or planting an improvised explosive device.
"If I could have done that, I could have watched him continuously and when the bad guys start doing bad things, I could have killed them," Lynch said.
The commanding general of the U.S. Army installation management command said they are a great addition.
"I believe candidly we can accelerate the evolution of technology," Lynch said. "I contend there are things we can do to improve the survivability of our service members."
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