The Sky Is the Limit for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

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The Sky Is the Limit for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Unmanned aerial vehicles are filling the skies of Iraq and wreaking havoc on Al Qaeda. The first UAVs were intended for surveillance: simple flying machines that carried cameras. But soon, the UAVs were being fitted with weaponry as well, and the Predator drone, armed with the Hellfire air-to-ground missile, has now been used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, that's just the beginning of the story of unmanned aerial vehicles. Advances in such areas as lightweight materials, super-efficient engines, microelectronics, signal-processing equipment, and GPS navigation all contributed to rapid advances of UAV technology.

As a result, according to The Wall Street Journal,1 the market for these robotic flying vehicles is booming. Last summer, a big industry trade show in Washington featured numerous new designs, as manufacturers such as Raytheon raced to make them more reliable and more capable.

That company's newest UAV, called the Cobra, flew for the first time at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland during that trade show. And the Cobra is one of the first UAVs to receive FAA permission to conduct commercial flights, as well as military missions.

Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, displayed its Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which it is building for the Navy. And L-3 Communications showed off its Viking 100 model.

These and a host of other UAVs designed primarily for military and police will help satisfy the explosive demand for such technology. Specifically, the Department of Homeland Security is adding a fleet of UAVs; one of the largest applications will be to create a virtual border fence along the entire southern border of the United States, monitored 24/7 by sensors, cameras, and UAVs.

At the same time, various police departments are getting into the act; UAVs are naturals for stake-outs and overseeing disasters. And, the military still has many niches not filled by today's UAVs. This has motivated the traditional airframe and armament manufacturers to devote vast resources to meeting this explosion in demand, even as dozens of new companies crop up to get in on the burgeoning market.

Aerocross Systems in McKinney, Texas, for example, has only three employees. It used a $750,000 small business contract to develop its Echo Hawk drone for the Air Force...

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