Warplanes: The Homesick UAV


December 29,2008: In 2007, Ireland bought two Israeli Orbiter UAV systems, for $550,000 each. It has lost two of their six UAVs in Chad, where a battalion of Irish peacekeepers are operating. The second one UAV casualty apparently tried to fly back to Ireland, after it lost its communications link with the operator. The Orbiter is programmed to head back to the operator if it loses its comm link. But this Orbiter apparently still had a GPS location back in Ireland in its memory, and headed there. Since Ireland is 5,000 kilometers from Chad, the Orbiter ran out of juice and landed about 4,800 kilometers short of its goal.

The 14.3 pound Orbiter is battery powered and launched by a catapult, and lands via parachute and airbag. It can stay aloft for up to three hours (with the lighter day camera) and operate up to 15 kilometers from the operator. It can fly as high as 3,000 meters. Usually it flies at 200-1,500 meters. It is one meter long and has a wing span of 2.2 meters. The Orbiter carries a color vidcam, with night vision and a 10x zoom. The operator can direct the camera to keep watching a particular point, but initially programs a flight path to send the UAV to a patrol area. The hand held controller has a large screen and video game-like controls. One Orbiter system consists of three aircraft and a controller (plus spare batteries and a lighter daylight camera). Max speed is 135 kilometers an hour, but usually it flies at 45-120 kilometers an hour. The Irish troops like the Orbiter, but now know that UAVs have a high attrition rate.

UAVs are very popular with peacekeepers because a large part of the job is keeping track of lots of people. This has to be done with innocent civilians, and armed groups of bad guys. The civilians and hostiles often have no way to communicate over long distances, so the UAV is a lot more efficient than manned aircraft for tracking everyone down.





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