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09-14-08, 08:37 AM
Air Force plans to pull out big (uh, little) guns
Scientists designing 'lethal' mini-drones
By Aamer Madhani | Chicago Tribune correspondent
September 14, 2008

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — It may look like a futuristic arcade game, but it's a scene from an official Air Force animated video: Bad guys of indiscernible origin being shadowed, from a careful distance, by small robotic drones designed to resemble birds and insects.

When one of the bad guys opens his apartment door, a tiny robo-bug, looking like a garage door opener with wings, sneaks in to spy. In another scene, a bug—the Air Force calls them Micro Air Vehicles, or MAVs—creeps into a sniper's roost and delivers a deadly shot to the back of his head.

It might sound far-fetched. But top Air Force officials believe that MAVs could be a significant part of the Defense Department's arsenal in the not-so-distant future.

Civilian researchers and airmen at the Air Force Research Laboratory, based at this installation just outside Dayton, have set a 2015 deadline to roll out the first generation of MAVs. This first group, they hope, will be the size of birds and able to operate several days without recharging.

"These are one of the assets that in the future could be a game-changer," said Mark Lewis, chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force.

For more than a decade, the Pentagon and the aerospace industry have poured tens of millions of dollars into research surrounding tiny flying machines that officials say could be an invaluable help in battle and rescue operations.

Scientists have studied the flight of fruit flies, the crawling of insects and the perching of birds as they look for ideas on how to build an aircraft that is light enough to be carried in a soldier's rucksack but durable enough to stay aloft for long periods.

U.S. forces and their allies have already used some small vehicles in the field, but nothing that compares in size and stealth to what scientists at the Air Force lab are looking to develop in coming years.

Britain's Special Forces have tested a 28-inch-long MAV, called the Wasp, on reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan. Last year, the U.S. Marines placed a $19.3 million order for the small unmanned aircraft, developed by California-based AeroVironment. The Wasp can be fitted with explosives that could theoretically be used for a surprise attack.

Bigger's not better
The U.S. military relies on large unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance missions and surgical strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Air Force officials say the smaller MAVs, flying at 50 to 100 feet, would offer troops on the ground precise information that a larger drone flying at 30,000 feet cannot.

"The idea of developing very small unmanned flying vehicles has been an obsession of the Air Force for decades," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-based think tank. "It follows the general trend toward miniaturization of almost everything the Air Force does."

The near-term goal is to create a bird-size MAV by 2015, and by 2030 the Air Force hopes to deploy a bug-size aircraft, said Maj. Gregory Parker, a team leader in the laboratory's Air Vehicles Directorate. The marketing video, created by the Air Force scientists to explain their vision, claims the drones will be "unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal."

But the Air Force and its defense industry partners face a steep climb in the development of the next generation of MAVs. The Wasp established a record for MAVs in 2002 when it stayed up for 107 minutes in a test flight—far short of the Air Force Research Laboratory's goal of developing a vehicle that can operate for days or even weeks at a time.

Parker said the directorate is searching for ways that their conceptual MAVs could harvest energy from potential resources in an urban environment, such as power lines and sunlight. Another problem is landing.

"The biggest challenge is how do we make it able to maneuver on spot, so it can land without a runway," Parker said. "We have to figure out how do you land on a tree limb or building's edge. How do you land on a power line?"

Air Force officials say drones as small as the ones they envision could blend into the environment, peering around the blind turn of a mountain pass or peeking into a suspected insurgent hideout to gather intelligence more safely and with greater stealth, officials say.

Researchers are also working on technology that would allow Air Force officials to launch a swarm of MAVs to provide more detailed surveillance.

"Maybe you launch a thousand of them on one city block to find one [target]," Parker said.

Parker added that the use of tiny MAVs could have civilian applications. For example, small unmanned air vehicles could be dispatched into rubble after a natural disaster to search for signs of life.

Some skepticism
Thompson, the defense analyst, said bird- and bug-size drones would be useful in the type of fighting troops have faced in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he remains skeptical that the researchers will be able to develop aircraft in the near future that can sustain missions that last weeks.

He also said significant advances would be necessary to create micro-air vehicles that could carry the weight of a small camera or a weapons system.

"There may be the know-how to create a vehicle the size of a grasshopper," Thompson said. "But if it can't carry the payload, why build a grasshopper?"

Douglas Blake, deputy director of the Air Vehicles Directorate, acknowledged that researchers face hurdles, but said his team has the brainpower to overcome them. And the payoff in the battlefield, he added, would be huge.

"This would give us the capability of going anywhere at any time," Blake said.