Tiny spying machines
By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
GAINESVILLE -- It looks like a fly on steroids. It has a 5.5-inch wingspan and a thumbnail-sized camera tucked into its belly, but its sleek black body still weighs less than 2 ounces.
And in just a few years, this product of a University of Florida engineering professor and his students could be hovering over battlefields or weaving through urban jungles, snapping spy photos for the U.S. military.
The laboratory work tables where engineering professor Peter Ifju and his students design the spy planes, called micro-aerial vehicles or MAVs, are a model geek's paradise.
Piled high with wires, pliers, X-acto blades, epoxy and sandpaper ordered from ordinary online hobby suppliers, the tables are also a staging ground in the next wave of American military technology.
The ultralight carbon-fiber plane and its operating system fit into a medium-sized suitcase. Its near-silent electrical engine runs on a thin battery and is maneuvered by a hand-held remote controller with a joystick. The plane's operator can guide its movements through virtual reality glasses, which allow a user to see what the camera sees in real time. The MAV flies for 15 minutes at 30 mph for up to a mile from a launch site. The plane's tiny camera can capture video from just a few feet above a target. And unlike larger surveillance planes, it is almost impossible for radar to track.
"You just pack it up, take it out in the field, put on the glasses, throw it up in the air and that's it," Ifju said. "Eventually, you could have swarms of these things flying over battlefields."
For five years, Ifju and his colleagues have been developing their cutting-edge technology in relative obscurity on a budget of about $100,000 a year. But the post-Sept. 11 rush to beef up unmanned military missions has increased that figure to $500,000 for the coming year, Ifju said.
The U.S. Special Operations Forces and Air Force Special Forces at Hurlburt Field in northwest Florida have already invested in the university's MAV research, Ifju said, and the program has contracts with NASA's Langley Research Center and Eglin Air Force Base. Ifju's models won first prize at international engineering competitions four years in a row.
Though it may be a few years before soldiers use the new technology, Ifju is confident that the latest injection of research money will make miniaturized global positioning systems, longer distance flights and greater maneuverability possible in a matter of months. His hope is that replacing the hand-held remote with miniaturized global positioning systems will allow the military to run reconnaissance missions several miles from launch sites.
The military has used unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs since the 1950s. They've been an active part of the U.S. arsenal since the Vietnam War. The unmanned drones can bring back vital tactical information such as troop numbers and enemy artillery locations.
The sophisticated spycams and high-tech weaponry used on the 2,250-pound Predator drone have been a hot ticket item with American military commanders in the current war on terrorism.
Testifying before the Senate's Armed Services Committee in February, Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim dubbed the Predator "the workhorse of Afghanistan" and said his department plans to spend close to $1-billion to develop more unmanned aerial vehicles.
But the Predator's popularity with military commanders has a hefty price. Each one costs more than $3-million.
Soon, Ifju's palm-sized creations will be able to fly the same kind of elaborate reconnaissance missions in rough terrain or in close urban areas at a fraction of Predator's cost. It takes roughly six hours and about $900 to piece together one MAV -- cheap and fast by Department of Defense standards.
The U.S. Special Operations Forces, the military's elite combat wing, could use the tiny remote-controlled surveillance plane to sneak a peak over mountain ridges or sight snipers hiding in narrow city alleys, minimizing the risks to soldiers' lives.
Eglin Air Force Base's Revolutionary Technology Team is also working with Ifju and System Dynamics International, an engineering firm with a Gainesville office, to develop the technology to assess bomb damage on the battlefield. The miniplanes could be mounted on missiles and transmit video of a bomb's impact and explosion.
"It would keep us from having to have an aircraft do a flyover to assess whether the mission had been successful, thus reducing risk to the pilots," said Rex Swenson, spokesman for Eglin's Munitions Directorate.
In addition, UF's affordably designed MAV's can be mass-produced, making them essentially disposable.
"A Predator can only fly as low as about 100 feet off the ground. If you crash a Predator, you're likely to take out a school bus, but if you crash (a MAV) you probably won't do much damage. You cannot afford to have things like the Predator in the air for really low-flying surveillance," Ifju said.
The government's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, an arm of the Department of Defense, has already spent millions on MAV research. DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker said the agency is especially interested in developing tiny planes that can launch and land vertically, which could be useful in tight urban combat zones.
"We see them replacing human scouts," Walker said. "When you're in an urban terrain, you need to know what's around the corner, what's behind the next building. This kind of small air vehicle could transmit from the top of a building. It could go up the side of buildings and peak into a window."
Urban combat is getting a lot of attention lately as the United States considers an attack on Iraq. Saddam Hussein has said he is determined to fight his next battle with American troops in the streets of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. In recent days, he has ordered Iraqi forces to fortify defensive positions for military equipment around the city.
DARPA also has spent considerable time studying "flapping" technology, which uses synthetic muscles to simulate a bird's movements and propel MAVs. But experts estimate that it could take a decade to produce results.
By contrast, work on the University of Florida's propeller model is rapidly progressing. "We want the University of Florida to continue to be the No. 1 program in micro-aerial vehicle development in the United States," Ifju said.
-- Times researchers John Martin and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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