Warplanes: April 30, 2004


The U.S. Marines are using a new mini-UAV, in Iraq, for battlefield reconnaissance. The Silver Fox UAV weighs 22 pounds (with a four pound payload) and can fly as high as a thousand feet. Its eight foot wings are easily removed from the fuselage and the UAV can then be carried around in a 60"x14"x15" container that has been described as, an oversize golf bag. If the wind is strong enough, the Silver Fox can be launched by hand, but normally it is propelled into flight via compressed air from a portable launcher. The UAV lands by just stopping the engine when its low to the ground. The UAV is light enough to just bounce when it hits the ground. Silver Fox is being used in addition to the lighter (4.3 pound) Dragon Eye UAV (which has a less capable video camera and is more unstable in high winds.)

The model aircraft engine keeps it in the air up to five hours per sortie. The aircraft is maneuvered via radio commands via a laptop computer. It can either be controlled by the operator, or simply instructed to go from one way point to another (using an onboard GPS and flight control software.) It can fly at speeds of up to a hundred kilometers an hour (about 27 meters a second). Its small enough to provide a hard to hit target for enemy troops firing at it. In any event, its engine is hard to hear when the UAV is higher than 500 feet. At night, its pretty much impossible to detect from the ground.

The dozen or so Silver Foxes currently in Iraq are still considered experimental. The UAV was developed by the navy last year to give warship captains a cheap way to check if there were any whales in the vicinity, before engaging in training exercises that might harm the marine mammals. This was considered cheaper than firing up the ships helicopter (which costs over a thousand dollars an hour to operate.) The experimental Silver Fox UAVs cost about $20,000 to make (using off the shelf components). If manufactured in larger quantities, unit cost would fall to under $10,000. The model the marines are using has day and night cameras which broadcast the video images back to the laptop. This gives battalion or company commanders are view of what is in the area their troops are about to enter. The use of UAVs like this has made street fighting in places like Fallujah a lot more effective, and saved the lives of many marines. 


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