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.
|Soldier preparing to launch the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, Dragon Eye.|
image: U.S. Marines
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.
UAVs, like the "Predator"
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 Predator in flight|
image: ABC News
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."
are currently testing a much smaller UAV, called “Dragon Eye” in
the desert near the Persian Gulf. Theyâ€™re hoping it will give soldiers
on the ground their own eyes in the sky, eliminating risky scouting missions.
|The view from Dragon Eye|
image: U.S. Marines
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 couldnâ€™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 theyâ€™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
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.