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Spy drones, some tiny as bugs, evolve to fight new battles
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[Image: bilde?Site=BB&Date=20110620&Category=NEW...R&MaxW=570]

Lt. Greg Sundbeck positions a microdrone in the test chamber of the indoor flight laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. The Pentagon has asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones next year.

Chang W. Lee / New York Times News Service

Spy drones, some tiny as bugs, evolve to fight new battles
By Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker / New York Times News Service

Published: June 20. 2011 4:00AM PST

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio Two miles from the cow pasture where the Wright Brothers learned to fly the first airplanes, military researchers are at work on another revolution in the air: shrinking unmanned drones, the kind that fire missiles into Pakistan and spy on insurgents in Afghanistan, to the size of insects and birds.

The base's indoor flight lab is called the "microaviary," and for good reason. The drones in development here are designed to replicate the flight mechanics of moths, hawks and other inhabitants of the natural world. "We're looking at how you hide in plain sight," said Greg Parker, an aerospace engineer, as he held up a prototype of a mechanical hawk that in the future might carry out espionage or kill.

Half a world away in Afghanistan, Marines marvel at one of the new blimplike spy balloons that float from a tether 15,000 feet above one of the bloodiest outposts of the war, Sangin, in Helmand province. The balloon, called an aerostat, can transmit live video from as far as 20 miles away of insurgents planting homemade bombs. "It's been a game-changer for me," Capt. Nickoli Johnson said in Sangin this spring. "I want a bunch more put in."

From blimps to bugs, an explosion in aerial drones is transforming the way America fights and thinks about its wars. Predator drones, the Cessna-sized workhorses that have dominated unmanned flight since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, are by now a brand name, known and feared around the world. But far less known is the sheer size, variety and audaciousness of a rapidly expanding drone universe, along with the dilemmas that come with it.

The Pentagon has asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones next year, and by 2030 envisions ever more stuff of science fiction: "spy flies" equipped with sensors and microcameras to detect enemies, nuclear weapons or victims in rubble. Peter Singer, of the Brookings Institution and the author of "Wired for War," a book about military robotics, calls them "bugs with bugs."

In recent months, drones have been more crucial than ever in fighting wars and terrorism. The CIA spied on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan by video transmitted from a new bat-winged stealth drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, otherwise known as the "Beast of Kandahar," named after it was first spotted on a runway in Afghanistan. One of Pakistan's most wanted militants, Ilyas Kashmiri, was reported dead this month in a CIA drone strike, part of an aggressive drone campaign that administration officials say has helped paralyze al-Qaida in the region and has become a possible rationale for an accelerated withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. More than 1,900 insurgents in Pakistan's tribal areas have been killed by U.S. drones since 2006, according to the website http://www.longwar journal.com.

In April, the United States began using armed Predator drones against Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya. Last month a CIA-armed Predator aimed a missile at Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical U.S.-born cleric believed to be hiding in Yemen. The Predator missed, but U.S. drones continue to patrol Yemen's skies.

Large or small, drones raise questions about the growing disconnect between the U.S. public and its wars. Military ethicists concede that drones can turn war into a videogame, inflict civilian casualties and, with no Americans directly at risk, more easily draw the United States into conflicts. Drones have also created a crisis of information for analysts on the end of a daily video deluge. Not least, the Federal Aviation Administration has qualms about expanding their test flights at home, as the Pentagon would like. Last summer, fighter jets were almost scrambled after a rogue Fire Scout drone, the size of a small helicopter, wandered into Washington's restricted airspace.

To Singer of Brookings, the debate over drones is like debating the merits of computers in 1979: They are they here to stay, and the boom has barely begun. "We are at the Wright Brothers Flier stage of this," he said.

Mimicking insects

A tiny helicopter is buzzing menacingly as it prepares to lift off in the Wright-Patterson aviary, a warehouse-like room lined with 60 motion-capture cameras to track the little drone's every move. The helicopter, a footlong hobbyists' model, has been programmed by a computer to fly itself. Soon it is up in the air making purposeful figure eights.

"What it's doing out here is nothing special," said Parker, the aerospace engineer. The researchers are using the helicopter to test technology that would make it possible for a computer to fly, say, a drone that looks like a dragonfly. "To have a computer do it 100 percent of the time, and to do it with winds, and to do it when it doesn't really know where the vehicle is, those are the kinds of technologies that we're trying to develop," Parker said.

The push right now is developing "flapping wing" technology, or recreating the physics of natural flight, but with a focus on insects rather than birds. Birds have complex muscles that move their wings, making it difficult to copy their aerodynamics. Designing an insect is difficult, too, but their wing motions are simpler. "It's a lot easier problem," Parker said.

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