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DARPA 'Wasp' Surveillance Drones Showcased

Space War | April 12 2005

Warriors throughout history have known that intelligence wins battles by helping eliminate the so-called "fog of war."

The best intelligence available comes from the ability to observe the enemy. Ancient Chinese warlords developed kites that could carry men aloft so they could see what was over the next hill and observe enemy emplacements from afar.

Not knowing what is on the other side of a wall, hill or horizon has been the bane of the infantryman in every skirmish, battle or war. Is that stir of dust in the air caused by an enemy laying in ambush or a family hiding from a battle raging around them?

Thanks to a new unmanned aerial vehicle that AeroVironment of Simi Valley, Calif., is developing for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a squad leader may soon be able to answer that question without having to risk a Marine's life in the process.

In fact, the small, lightweight, hand-launched "Wasp" may be the Marine's new best friend when it comes to performing reconnaissance missions.

The Wasp is a MAV—a micro-air vehicle—that weighs approximately 200 grams depending on its configuration.

This tiny terror runs on two small Kokam Lithium Polymer "spar" batteries inserted in the carbon-fiber leading edge of each Kevlar wing which not only power the electric propulsion system, but also provide structural support for the wing.

The Wasp carries forward- and side-looking fixed-focus color daylight cameras. The images from these cameras are relayed back to a ground control unit along with global positioning system coordinates.

A Marine controlling the MAV can then relay those coordinates to a fire control center for an artillery shoot.

Once launched, the Wasp enters an automatic flight pattern that is programmed into its avionics software through a Toughbook computer using FalconView software for handling images and mission control.

The operator can set GPS waypoints and even adjust those waypoints in flight. Once over the target, the Wasp enters into a circular flight pattern and points it side-looking camera at the target.

Nick Foster, electrical engineer, AeroVironment, explained that the Wasp's cameras can clearly make out heads while flying at 200 foot above ground level and, on the Toughbook, weapons may also be identified.

On March 16, Dr. Christodoulou's team flew the Wasp above the newly established military operations in urban terrain facility on Range 200 here.

The Wasp controller is about the same size as a Gameboy. It has a main joystick, a throttle control, a switch for changing camera views, a mode select button and an enter key for setting modes.

It boasts a 7-inch liquid crystal color display the pilot can use to manually fly the craft or take a fast look at a suspected target. It also has an "autoland" feature that takes all the guesswork out of trying to land.

Speaking of landing, the Wasp can either be caught in a net or hard-landed on a fairly level surface. A built-in skid plate and break-off rudder, fins and propeller prevent any damage to the aircraft.

The fins and rudder can be recovered and snapped back on. The propeller has to be replaced, but more fins and propellers are readily available in the carrying case.

In less than 15 minutes the Wasp is ready for its next mission. The Wasp will survive at least 10 flights with a 20-flight objective.

The Wasp currently has a 60-minute mission window, but future versions are expected to remain on station for up to six hours, according to Dr. Leo Christodoulou, program manager, DARPA. He added that the final version of the Wasp runs about $5,000 a copy.

Christodoulou also explained that future version will have an infrared detecting capability.

A waterproof Wasp is also being developed for the Navy.

The ground control unit currently runs about $30,000, said Christodoulou, but one GCU can control up to six Wasps. The GCU is the same unit that controls other AeroVironment MAVs like the Pointer and Raven.

"Anyone with Dragoneye experience can pick it right up," said Charlie Kiers, military liaison, DARPA. He added that new operators need to attend a one-week training course.

The Wasp is a cutting-edge concept with the potential to save Marines' lives in combat. Simply knowing about an ambush before it happens can enable a squad leader to spoil that ambush, turning the hunter into the hunted.