- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

Today, another entry for the Really Cute Gadget file: an affordable robotic airplane that, by all reports, actually works. It's called Aerosonde and is made by a company of the same name (www.aerosonde.com)
Now, robotic airplanes are, if not old hat, at least not the newest thing in the closet. Hobbyists play with remote-controlled aircraft of surprising sophistication. The military has some really slick ones, for lots of millions of dollars. Some will fire missiles, not especially useful in civilian applications, but interesting.
Aerosonde, by contrast, is very small and light, carries a small payload, doesn't go very fast, requires no security clearances, and is therefore comparatively cheap. The company says it will sell you one for about $40,000, including the ground station.
The aircraft itself weighs about 30 pounds, has a wing span of about 10 feet, and a tiny gasoline engine. It runs on premium unleaded gasoline.
To launch it, you put it on top of your car with the engine running, accelerate to takeoff speed, and let it go. It lands on its belly.
It also carries GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation gear, which means that it can tell where it is to within a couple of dozen feet, almost anywhere in the world. When an airplane knows where it is, it can easily go to anywhere else without human intervention. The company gives the range as better than 1,800 miles. And it can stay in the air for more than 30 hours.
OK, Fred, you say, that's nice, but what is this thing good for?
It was designed for meteorological observation, the idea being that it could collect information on storms and such that satellites can't get and that would cost fortunes to collect if you used manned aircraft. In one version it does automatic storm-front tracking, for example. But you can hang different instruments on it, provided they don't weigh more than about 4 pounds, and use it for all manner of things, such a crop surveillance or battlefield work.
It's the kind of instrument scientists love because they can afford to send it over a volcano, or use it to track whales. It can communicate via satellite, and fly either autonomously or by ground control.
In August 1998, an Aerosonde took off from Bell Island Airport, crossed the North Atlantic to Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides all by itself, contacted the landing site when it got there, and was brought down safely under manual control. This came to 1,900 miles in 27 hours and, as the company says, all on a gallon and a half of fuel.
Now, when formerly expensive technology becomes cheap, interesting things happen. If a computer costs $10 million, most of us won't have one. If it costs a grand, you might put it on your desk and use it for writing letters. What happens when genuinely reliable surveillance systems cost $40K plus (also cheap) instrumentation such as video cameras?
Years back a guy I know named Chuck Decaro came up with the idea of a flying newsroom (a Lockheed Electra) that could go to hot spots to provide coverage. (The Web site, Aerobureau.com, is interesting.) Part of the plane's equipment was a remotely controlled aircraft to cover things too dangerous for people. For whatever reasons, the networks didn't buy the idea. But the unmanned vehicle worked.
The aircraft are cheap enough to be expendable for a network. Which raises interesting questions.
What happens when unmanned cameras, on commodity aircraft, start flying over sensitive areas without being verifiably associated with a national government? You can launch them surreptitiously from a cow field and land them on another. What's the legality, and who would care?
As things get cheaper, they get more common. It's spook technology for the masses. Why should the CIA have all the fun?

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