May 25, 2003 

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Eyes in the Sky
February 28, 2003

Soldier with Dragon Eye, UAV
Soldier preparing to launch the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, Dragon Eye.
image: U.S. Marines
At first glance, it may look like this soldier is playing with a model airplane. Has the American military gone soft? But this type of aircraft is anything but a way to pass the time.

The military calls airplanes like this Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs. Today, these planes are flying serious, important and sometimes deadly missions.

Perhaps one of the most recent milestones for this new kind of military weapon was in Yemen on November 3, 2003. In what was hailed as a major success in the war on terrorism, a UAV called the “Predator” was used to fire on and kill a suspected al-Qaeda leader - providing a glimpse at a likely weapon in a war waged with Iraq.

Flying Spies

Predator in flight
The Predator in flight
image: ABC News
UAVs, like the "Predator" and "Global Hawk" are primarily used for surveillance. As shown on PBS's "NOVA", the video camera equipped aircraft give the Air Force real time views in the hunt for enemy targets.

The military is trying out smaller ones for troops in the trenches. "You know, when you see a “Predator,” or a “Global Hawk,” as they have been used in Kosovo or in Afghanistan, the information for those always goes to higher headquarters," said the Marines' Brigadier General William D. Catto to NOVA. "It's very difficult to get that information to a company commander to give him information he needs in a timely manner."

View from Dragon Eye, UAV
The view from Dragon Eye
image: U.S. Marines
The Marines are currently testing a much smaller UAV, called “Dragon Eye” in the desert near the Persian Gulf. They’re hoping it will give soldiers on the ground their own eyes in the sky, eliminating risky scouting missions.

At about five pounds, “Dragon Eye” sends live pictures of what's over a hill or behind a building back to a laptop ground station. It can fly at about forty miles per hour, for up to an hour, and can transmit its bird's-eye view from as far as six miles away.

But UAVs aren't invulnerable. Some on duty over Afghanistan were shot down or crashed. One of the “Global Hawk” prototypes crashed during testing in California. Unlike a piloted plane, it didn't have a backup control system. Its operators couldn’t save it once something went wrong. While no one was hurt in these crashes, some very expensive equipment was lost. "Most of our manned aircraft have multiple systems that can take over in case of failure. The issue is expense. How much do you want to spend to make it a reliable system? And the plain fact of the matter is that UAVs are expensive,” Air Force Colonial Tom Erhard, told NOVA.

Since bigger isn't always better, researchers are trying to make tiny UAVs that are capable of flying and spying indoors. But there are some technological hurdles to overcome before they’ll be able to give the military a bugs-eye view. "If you're trying to make a small robot vehicle fly inside, fixed wing vehicles fly too fast to go down corridors and make turns," Georgia Tech's Robert C. Michelson told NOVA. He thinks the answer to that might be developing a “micro” UAV that flies like an insect. "With a flapping wing device the energy is much lower and spread out in time, and we could survive a wall strike, perhaps, and continue the mission.”

Another major challenge for designers of UAVs that small is how to power insect-sized eyes in the sky. As they get smaller, the batteries that power them will have to get smaller too, and so will their video cameras, something still to be worked out on the drawing board.

Nova airs this week on PBS. For more information, visit pbs.org/nova.



by Orrin Schonfeld


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