Warplanes: January 3, 2004


Mini-UAVs are very popular with the American army and marines, as a way for small infantry units to get some aerial reconnaissance where, and when, they want it. But these under ten pound UAVs are also popular with the U.S. Air Force. For all their thousands of aircraft, the air force still needs a way to keep an eye on the perimeters of it's overseas air bases. In particular, the air force wants to spot, and stop, people trying to use portable anti-aircraft missiles against planes landing and taking off. You also want to spot those trying to fire surface-to-surface missiles at the base itself. This danger is especially severe in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. For the last 18 months, the air force base security troops have been using the seven pound Desert Hawk mini-UAV. Battery powered, the Desert Hawk can stay in the air for an hour, flying a route specified by the operator and using onboard GPS and flight software for guidance. The UAV can be equipped with daylight or night (heat imaging) cameras. Everything seen on each flight is recorded to a mini-cassette, and simultaneously transmitted back to the operator, who views the video on a laptop computer. The UAV cruises at about 80 kilometers an hour and at an altitude of 300-500 feet. The UAV can operate up to ten kilometers from its base station. The UAV is launched using a large elastic rope (a bungee cord, basically) and lands by just coming in low and turning off it's motor. The UAV is made of plastic. The operators do not fly the Desert Hawk, but they can change it's flight pattern while it's flying a mission, or command it to just circle a location. An onboard computer handles all the details of flying correctly and not spinning out of control. After one mission, the operator can put in a fresh set of batteries and launch it again. A Desert Hawk "detachment" consists of two sergeants and 520 pounds of waterproof carrying cases containing six UAVs, a laptop computer, communications equipment and a spare parts and repair kit. The UAV, once the parts are snapped together, has a 52 inch wingspan and is 32 inches long. New operators can be trained, on the job,  in about a week. With about a dozen personnel, the six UAVs in one detachment can provide 24/7 coverage for a base. The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, is also selling Desert Hawk to police departments (for stakeouts and general security) and utility companies (for checking pipelines and electrical transmission lines.) 


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