Featherweight drones, one of the newest weapons in the nation's arsenal, are among the sophisticated weapons technology being shipped to the Middle East for possible use in aerial surveillance of opposing forces, officials said Thursday.
The nine-pound planes--dubbed unmanned aerial vehicles--were requested by the recently deployed 82nd Airborne Division and are scheduled to depart with the "second wave" headed to Saudi Arabia, sources said. Five of the toy-like planes could leave as early as Thursday, sources said.
The planes, which can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously, have only been in use for the past five months and are still considered experimental. The 82nd Airborne, stationed in Ft. Bragg, N.C., has flown them since June 15 in an effort to ferret out the movements of "enemies" in exercises.
"I would have liked for us to go through a few more technical upgrades to give the system more flexibility and capability," said Marine Corps Col. Larry Karch of the Joint Project for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, an armed forces program funded by the Defense Department, which oversees the planes.
"We gave them some equipment for them to experiment with and tell us if we were on the right track. We never figured on this."
Touted as an "eye in the sky," the plane allows its operators a 360-degree view from about 500 feet in the air. Since it can fly no farther than three miles from its operators, the vehicle is best suited to supply information to smaller-sized units, such as battalions and companies, Karch said.
"It's like making a 500-foot-tall man with a pair of binoculars. If he has his eyes up there, he can look over the hill and around the curve--obviously, he has a great advantage," said program spokesman Ray Coleman.
According to an Aug. 2 action report evaluating the 82nd Airborne's use of the system, called a Pointer by its Simi Valley-based manufacturer, AeroVironment, "its performance was outstanding." The division's commanding general, Maj. Gen. James H. Johnson, said that "if we go to war today, the Pointer will go with the division," according to the memo.
Though the program has received glowing reports recently, it has also had its share of mishaps, according to a March 29 memo obtained by The Times.
In the first launch last spring during tests in South Korea, the drone flew into a tree and was demolished. The second launch was successful, but ground controllers lost contact with the plane and it landed in a rice paddy, where a Korean farmer tried to claim it as his. A third drone ran into a general's helicopter in a test two days later.
The planes, made of a lightweight non-metallic composite material, are launched by tossing them in the air javelin-style. With a 9-foot wingspan, the aircraft can fly using lithium batteries and an electric motor for about an hour.