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Drone hits cargo plane in Afghanistan

Drone hits cargo plane in Afghanistan

By Tina Patel. CREATED Aug 21, 2011

(CNN) - There are new concerns about the safety of drone technology, after an unmanned aircraft hit a military cargo plane over Afghanistan. No one was hurt, but as drone technology expands, some are concerned a disastrous drone accident is just waiting to happen.

The American drone that collided with a huge air force cargo plane was only 12 feet long. But the collision forced the huge Air Force plane to make an emergency landing in Afghanistan, and it's raising questions about the safety of UAVs.

"This is a very, very rare event," says Tim Owings, who works for the Army's unmanned aircraft systems. He says they've flown more than a million hours in dirty, dangerous combat situations without an accident like this.

The US military has built a fleet of UAVs. Troops are coming home to become cops and firefighters wanting to use that technology here. Unmanned aircraft could show firefighters how fast a blaze is moving, and where. They could search for climbers stranded 9,000 feet up on a mountain.

But a small drone damaged a cargo plane, so the thought of it hitting a commercial jet is scary.

"That is really the heart and soul of the real issue that faces our industry," says Paul McDuffee, who works for an unmanned aircraft developer, Insitu. He says the Federal Aviation Administration has to define the rules and regulations to integrate UAVs into American airspace.

"I think it was the FAA's belief that this was simply an annoyance. But there's an entire convention hall filled with new technology - from pocket-sized helicopters to aquatic vehicles that can submerge 1000 meters for 9 months at a time. They now realize this is a much bigger problem. That UAVs are here to stay, they are going to have to wrestle with the issue."

Military aircraft and commercial jets have equipment onboard to detect and avoid other planes. Drones don't. But the military is now working on a new radar system that would prevent collisions with drones.  The FAA hopes to have a new air traffic control network in place that incorporates drones well before the year 2025.