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Remote Control Drone Plane Flies Over SoCal Skies

New York Times | January 15 2005

If all goes well, this year a remote-controlled portable airplane will be taking to the air over Southern California, providing a low-cost eye in the sky for law enforcement.

Chang Industry of La Verne, Calif., is one of dozens of companies working on portable unmanned aerial vehicles, or U.A.V.'s, that can be equipped with cameras to transmit live video feeds to law enforcement officers on the ground, miles away. While larger and more sophisticated unmanned aircraft have been in use by the military for several years, this new breed of U.A.V.'s is small enough to be transported in the trunk of a patrol car, for example, assembled and flown by officers near a developing crime scene.

Dr. Yu-Wen Chang, the company's president, said that he expects to sell his Kite Plane, which has a wingspan of about 4 feet and weighs less than 5 pounds, for $5,000 apiece. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department will be the first law enforcement agency to test the plane, probably in April, Dr. Chang said.

A big attraction of a small remote-controlled plane is the cost. Law enforcement agencies spend millions of dollars to purchase, maintain and fly helicopters and planes for surveillance and other crime-fighting tasks. U.A.V.'s could substitute for piloted aircraft in certain circumstances.

Safety is another consideration, Dr. Chang said.

"The big helicopter would get shot at, so they can just launch this and take a quick look," he said.

The Kite Plane has an exoskeleton made of foldable graphite composite poles, similar to tent poles, and a skin of parachute cloth, creating the wings of the airplane, Dr. Chang said. Its frame makes it durable and flexible, allowing for both a soft landing sliding onto dirt, or even into the arms of someone waiting to catch it. (The plane's 6-inch propeller shuts off before landing.)

The plane carries a video surveillance camera that is aimed toward the ground. Video is transmitted wirelessly at 30 frames per second.

The camera and electric motor are mounted in the center, below the wing, creating a miniature fuselage. It is piloted very much in the same way a toy remote-controlled car or airplane would be, with a hand-held joystick. While the Kite Plane can fly up to 1,000 feet and has a top speed of 30 miles per hour, its rechargeable battery can only last for 20 minutes.

The plane comes in pieces small enough to fit inside a sports duffel bag, and it can be put together and launched by hand in under a minute, Dr. Chang said.

The Kite Plane's light weight and low cruising altitude make it vulnerable to gunshots or even, in some cases, thrown rocks. However, Cmdr. Sid Heal, who is in charge of evaluating technology for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said the plane's low cost makes it highly desirable, particularly when compared with the current alternative of a helicopter.

"That helicopter costs $450 an hour - for every 10 hours of use, I've bought a new one of these that I own," he said.

If a Kite Plane were shot down, he said, it would validate the purchase of the aircraft.

"We didn't put our pilot in harm's way," he said. "They shoot one of those down, and I guarantee I'll have funds for 100 of them the next day."

The miniaturization of these aircraft is also driven by a concern for public safety, said Prof. Ilan Kroo, director of the Aircraft Aerodynamics and Design Group at Stanford University.

"If something catastrophic happens with the airplane and it crashes in a populated region, you want this thing to weigh a few ounces, not a few thousand pounds," Professor Kroo said.

Chang Industry is also working on a larger and more sophisticated version of the plane. These eight-foot wide planes would have a rigid wing, and a camera with the ability to pan, tilt and zoom and to provide night vision capabilities.

More important, these advanced planes would have autonomous flight capability, meaning they would not have to be guided constantly by someone with a remote control. Using a Global Positioning System receiver and programmed maps, Dr. Chang said, the plane could be programmed to fly to a target and circle it before returning. This larger plane would cost approximately three times the Kite Plane, about $15,000.

Chang Industry will have to compete with autonomous U.A.V.'s already on the market. L-3 BAI Aerosystems, based in Easton, Md., makes a 44-inch-wide plane called the Evolution, which sells for $25,000 and flies on its own with live video feeds that can be transmitted up to 12.5 kilometers. The Evolution, which can be transported in pieces in a backpack, is designed to collapse into its component pieces upon impact, leaving open the chance for reassembly.

Jay Willmott, the company's executive vice president, said that the United States Marshals Service uses the Evolution plane, and that the Maryland Port Authority is also interested in acquiring a small fleet.

One obstacle to more widespread use of U.A.V.'s is the lack of Federal Aviation Administration regulations for their use.

Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the F.A.A., said that U.A.V.'s must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and that using them in an urban area required F.A.A. approval through a one-year "certificate of authorization" for a particular plane in a specific area. A rural or remote area, such as a testing zone, would not have the same restrictions, Mr. Takemoto said.

However, the F.A.A. is currently drafting sweeping regulations on the use of U.A.V.'s. The agency hopes to have the regulations completed by September.

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