Unmanned aerial vehicles may be called "drones," but that doesn't mean they have to be dumb.
That's the upshot of a test that Boeing has completed with an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, called the ScanEagle, a 33-pound drone that over several years has already seen lots of action with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. In a recent exercise at a Boeing test facility in Oregon, target-tracking software called Stalker allowed the UAV to fly by its own wits. The ScanEagle automatically followed and monitored a truck (playing the role of a terrorist's vehicle) as it made evasive maneuvers such as starts and stops and abrupt turns; the Stalker software adjusted the ScanEagle's flight path to maintain a low profile but also optimal positioning to transmit video of the truck, Boeing said.
The ScanEagle soared as fast as 70 knots and ranged up to 1,500 feet during the 45-minute test flight. The UAV is capable of flying above 16,000 feet, according to Boeing.
Even with the new autonomous capabilities in the ScanEagle, surveillance efforts will often dictate that a human maintain a greater degree of oversight--and now, Boeing says, a ScanEagle operator can control multiple UAVs simultaneously. During the Oregon tests, a mission operator managed three ScanEagles at the same time. Meanwhile, an observer in the field relayed information on a target's location via cell phone to an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) console. The AWACS operator was able to request video of the target and relay that to the observer's cell phone, according to Boeing.
In this photo from August 2006, a contractor for a Marine UAV squadron in the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), carries a ScanEagle after it completed a flight in Iraq's Al Anbar province.
Photo by: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen
/ Caption by:CNET Reviews staff
A Marine stands ready to launch a ScanEagle in Iraq. The UAV was developed by Insitu, of Bingen, Wash. As of June 2007, ScanEagles have logged more than 40,000 flight hours, including the missions they've flown for the Marines and the U.S. Navy.
Over several days in late June, a 40-pound civilian version of the UAV, owned by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, logged 18 hours of flight time in Alaska, as part of a campaign to map the growth of wildfire fuels, Insitu said last week. In that time, it collected 30 color images per second of about 43 square miles of terrain. Those images will help officials plan prescribed fires that are intended to reduce the risk of blazes being set by live-fire training exercises run by the Army and Air Force.
A ScanEagle heads aloft from its pneumatic catapult launcher. The aircraft is 4 feet long and has a 10-foot wingspan. It can fly for more than 15 hours on 1.5 gallons of gas, and Boeing says planned variants may be able to cruise for more than 30 hours. Besides transmitting video, it can also handle voice over Internet Protocol communications. The ScanEagle first flew in 2002.
When a mission is over, the GPS-guided ScanEagle has to be snagged by a "skyhook" system, akin to the way fighter jets land on an aircraft carrier. A hook on the wing of the UAV catches a rope hanging from a 50-foot pole in a less-than-a-second landing that even a Boeing field service representative has called "violent."
The ScanEagle has a removable bay for avionics (that is, flight electronics) and two expansion slots for payloads. Here, an engineer loads an avionics system. The standard payload is either an electro-optical or an infrared camera.