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Spies That Fly

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: January 7, 2003

 

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The air war in Afghanistan showed that sometimes the hottest pilots are sitting on the ground operating the remote controls of UAVs—or unmanned aerial vehicles. In newly declassified footage, "Spies That Fly" reveals the astounding capabilities of UAVs and the ambitious plans for future models.

As demonstrated in every aerial operation involving United States forces since the Gulf War in 1991, UAVs can fly places and perform missions that are often too dangerous for humans to risk. Among the advanced UAVs now under development are super-efficient jets that can soar halfway around the world on autopilot without refueling and six-inch flying disks with penny-sized cameras. Right now the Marines are developing their own UAV, which can be carried in a backpack and launched by small units for battlefield intelligence.

The ultimate robotic flyer could be as small as a bee, however. Because of recent breakthroughs in understanding how insects hover, the future may hold fly-sized, flapping UAVs that can infiltrate buildings as antiterrorism surveillance vehicles.

Currently, the top gun of UAVs is the Predator—credited with helping destroy 700 targets in Afghanistan. Predator can stay aloft for up to 40 hours, making it ideal for spying day or night and in all weather conditions thanks to visible, infrared, and radar imaging sensors. When Predator identifies a target, it can spotlight it with a laser for destruction by one of its own missiles or by weapons fired from manned aircraft in the vicinity.

Although Predator is good for tracking known targets, it's not very efficient at broad area surveillance. "Predator is a very good way for following a truck driving down a highway," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "It's not a very good way to look over an entire city to try to find that truck to begin with."

In the future that mission will be performed by the Global Hawk. Still in flight testing, this high-flying eye-in-the-sky was sent to Afghanistan where it was able to survey vast areas from 12 miles up. Global Hawk has the added advantage that it can be programmed to fly itself from take-off to landing.

UAVs are now coming of age thanks to advances in satellite communications and navigation that allow the vehicles to fly with accuracy to targets far out of sight of ground control stations. This technology also allows the UAVs to send their images to commanders all over the world.

Historically, UAVs are an outgrowth of the Cold War strategy of espionage from above. In the late 1950s, the piloted, high-flying U-2 performed this function over the Soviet Union until improved Soviet surface-to-air missiles made it vulnerable. With the 1960s came invulnerable surveillance satellites.

Neither of these systems worked well for intelligence gathering during the Vietnam War, however, because of Southeast Asia's frequent cloud cover and thick rain forests, along with the U-2's susceptibility to missiles. As a result, the U.S. spent billions of dollars to develop an automatically piloted, low-altitude UAV. But the technology of the day was too primitive for this early robotic vehicle to be effective.

During the Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. Navy used a UAV called Pioneer as a forward spotter for battleship guns, which were pounding defenses on the mainland. This led to one of the most bizarre incidents of the war. Iraqi troops learned that the noisy Pioneers presaged an imminent artillery barrage. One Iraqi garrison therefore took the initiative and actually surrendered to the UAV.

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Global Hawk in flight

A RQ-4A Global Hawk climbing to mission altitude above the Edwards Air Force Base Test Range in California.

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Spies That Fly Web Site Content
Spy Photos

Spy Photos
Surveillance photographs of Kosovo, Iraq, and other hotspots.

Master of the Surveillance Image

Master of the Surveillance Image
Meet former CIA photo analyst Dino Brugioni.

Time Line of UAVs

Time Line of UAVs
Explore the history of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Imaging With Radar

Imaging With Radar
What can synthetic aperture radar "see"?



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