Under the Radar with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Owen Edwards in Smithsonian Magazine:

Unmanned-aerial-vehicle-Dragon-Eye-388 At the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (NASM), a display of six unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) demonstrates what happens when the little airplanes of my childhood get serious. Take the five-pound, 45-inch wingspan AeroVironment RQ-14A “Dragon Eye.” Launched by hand, or with a bungee cord, the tiny scout plane is controlled by GPS coordinates entered into its guidance system with a standard laptop computer. Once aloft on its mission—to transmit video images of territory lying ahead of a marine infantry or transport unit—the little scout is completely autonomous.

“The video is received in special eyeglasses worn by one of the two marines who operate the plane,” says NASM curator Dik Daso. “Taking the pilot out of the plane [in reconnaissance missions] has been a concern for a long time,” says Daso, a former Air Force reconnaissance pilot. “All sorts of cosmic stuff can be done when the person is out of the vehicle. You can design things that are really stealthy.”

The pilotless Dragon Eye keeps marines from having to move into what may be hostile territory without knowing what's ahead. Two tiny video cameras in the nose cone—one positioned to look down, the other to look to the side—give an accurate view of what's on the ground, precise enough for mortar fire to be directed at perceived threats.

More here.