Cutting Edge: Tiny Spy Planes

As a Marine moves through a field of battle, he may have no idea what foes or obstacles lie in wait.

A new technological advance may soon give him a way to find out.

The Marines Corps Warfighting Lab and Naval Research Lab soon will award a contract to build 40 miniature planes that can be stored in a soldier's backpack, assembled in the field of battle, and sent on one-hour missions to beam back live pictures of enemy positions.

"What we're trying to do is provide those small unit leaders an organic capability to launch a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] whenever they choose to see over the hill or the next building," says Maj. John Cane of the Warfighting Lab. "It will be the first small, man-packable UAV that will be fielded in the U.S. armed forces."

Runs on Autopilot

Eight prototypes of the Dragon Eye, as it's called, already exist, and the 4.3-pound, five-piece device has been in the pipeline for several years. But decision day on the project may be approaching. The units are expected to cost $5,000 each.

The Marines expect to have the 40 new units in hand next January, and then give some to troops in the field to experiment with in different environments. Around August of next year, the Marine Corps will decide whether to build more units and field the system more widely, Cane says.

The Dragon Eye's two electric engines run quietly on battery power. It carries either a day- or night-vision camera in its nose. It can fly at an altitude of up to 500 feet.The battery and lens it carries can weigh a total of about a pound. It could also feasibly carry sensors to, say, detect weather or poisonous gasses, or devices to relay communications.

Its position and point of view are monitored on a 10-pound ground control station that also is portable, and will cost an estimated $10,000.

"It's fully autonomous, meaning the marine on the ground does not actually fly the vehicle," Cane says. "What the marine does is program a route. … All he does is touch the screen, basically connect the dots."

Smaller Systems?

The military's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and the Army are also working on another portable open-air flying surveillance device called the Organic Air Vehicle System.

Like the Dragon Eye, the OAV essentially will run its missions on a pre-planned pattern and an autopilot. But it also will be able to hover, and to take off and land vertically. The OAV's exact size has not yet been determined, and it is probably farther away from possible deployment than Dragon Eye, says Jan Walker, a DARPA spokeswoman.

DARPA also has funded experimentation by private companies with much smaller flying devices — less than six inches in length and width — but none is currently in production for military use, Walker says.

"The cutting edge is to make these things smaller and smaller," says Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a professional organization committed to fostering unmanned vehicle systems.

DARPA's Micro Air Vehicles program, which limited flying devices to six inches, looked at whether the various designs could fly efficiently and carry payloads useable for military purposes. Independent researchers continue to look at the smaller flying vehicles, and are trying to develop practical ones that fly like insects, with the goal of entering buildings and hovering in rooms.

Davidson says a swarm of such devices might one day be able to examine urban battlefields inside and out before troops are subjected to danger.

But useful versions of such extreme miniaturization may be farther off. However, Cane hopes that a deployment of Dragon Eye will create a new market and spur private industry to develop lighter cameras, batteries and other payload items.

"We're somewhat held back because of the payloads and the utility of the payload," Cane says. "It's difficult to put a payload on there that gives us a decent level of usefulness … I think that there's going to be some breakthroughs here in the next few years."

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