Air Force goes full bore for 1lb unmanned aircraft

The US Air Force last gave the go-ahead for full production of the one pound, 29-inch WASP III unmanned aircraft designed to be used for special battlefield operations such as targeting and tracking.

 The Aerovironment Wasp III carries interchangeable targeting payload modules, including an infrared camera, along with two integrated color cameras that transmit streaming video directly to the hand-held ground controller for display on an integrated monitor. It has been procured under the Air Force’s Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air Vehicle (BATMAV) program.

BATMAV systems are expected to let military personnel see over hills and beyond their line of sight in real time and in low light. The unmanned aircraft are highly portable, durable and can be launched by one person. The BATMAV aircraft are expected to fly at an altitude of 500 feet, at about 40MPH and staying aloft for up to 90 minutes at a time.

In November 2007 the U.S. Marine Corps awarded AV a $19.3 million contract for Wasp III MAV systems under the Air Force BATMAV Contract. The Marines plan to deploy Wasp at the Platoon level and use it as a complement to their Raven unmanned aircraft, which they currently deploy at the company and battalion levels.

The military’s reliance on unmanned aircraft that can watch, hunt and sometimes kill insurgents has soared to more than 500,000 hours in the air, largely in Iraq, the Associated Press reported recently. A bulk of the unmanned flight hours belong to the Army’s workhorse drone, the Raven, also made by Aerovironment.

The Raven models, which weigh just four pounds, will clock in about 300,000 hours this year -- double the time they were used last year, the Army said. The Raven is flung into the air by soldiers and used for surveillance by smaller units, such as companies and battalions, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army has a total of 361 unmanned aircraft in Iraq alone - including Shadows, Hunters and Ravens. The Air Force has had great success with it Predator and Reaper UAVs. 

The General Atomics Predator series aircraft have flown an average of 8,200 hours per month over the past six months while maintaining the highest operational readiness rates in the U.S. military aircraft inventory. The Reaper is twice as fast as the Predator - it has a 900-horsepower turbo-prop engine, compared to the 119-horsepower Predator engine - and can carry far more ordnance - 14 Hellfire missiles as opposed to two.When the Raven's massive numbers are not included, UAV usage across all the military services jumped from nearly 165,000 flight hours in the 2006 fiscal year, to more than 258,000 for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2007, the AP said.Those figures, compiled by the Pentagon, include some training flights, but the overwhelming majority was on the warfront. A majority of the flights are in Iraq, which has seen the biggest increase. But they are also used extensively in Afghanistan. There, for example, the Air Force has hovered around 3,000-3,500 flight hours for the Predator each month, the AP said.

The military however isn’t alone in its use of unmanned aircraft. Automated unmanned helicopters and other flying aircraft are increasingly being used to track everything from traffic congestion to forest fires  

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