'Flying newsroom' swoops for scoops Drones would film battlefields,disasters

November 14, 1990|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Correspondent

LEVEL -- Is Chuck DeCaro crazy or is he a man of vision?

This was the question on the minds of many of those who gathered at a small airport in Harford County yesterday morning for a demonstration of something that looks like an overgrown model airplane.

Mr. DeCaro is counting on the pilotless drone to provide live aerial television news coverage of battles in the Middle East if the current crisis escalates into a shooting war.

The drone is just part of the aerial information-gathering operation created by the 40-year-old former Cable News Network journalist with a longtime fancy for flying, who has mixed his two loves to form his own company, Aerobureau Corp.

Aerobureau's "flying newsroom" would consist of the drones and a four-engine Lockheed Electra designed to take off on a minute's notice and report on such disasters as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Bhopal.

Mr. DeCaro has teamed up with AAI Corp. to use the remote-controlled, pilotless vehicles, which the Cockeysville defense contractor builds for the Defense Department, to augment the operations of the newsroom in the 30-year-old Electra, which he has dubbed the "Amazing Lady."

The drones would be guided by remote control because of the extreme danger involved in disaster coverage or in flying over a battle area in the Middle East.

The idea is to have the AAI drones carry television cameras as they fly over a dangerous area, take pictures and feed them back to a ground station, where the signals would be beamed up to a satellite for transmission to news agencies.

The fast-talking Mr. DeCaro calls his concept the most important news-gathering tool since the invention of the plume pen and laughs at the suggestion that he might be a cross between Don Quixote and Ted Turner. He flips the words around and says, "Ted Turner is a cross between Don Quixote and me."

"Sure, I've been called crazy," he says minutes after the tiny craft leaps from the runway with the assist of a tiny rocket engine. "But there were people who thought Ted Turner was crazy, too, for his 24-hour news concept. The big difference between Ted Turner and me is that he's better financed."

Mr. DeCaro pulls his trouser pockets inside out to show they are empty and adds, "I've put every nickel I have into this."

In 1984, he sold just about everything he owned to raise $150,000 to get his idea off the ground. He also gave up his own apartment and moved into a group home in Herndon, Va., to trim living expenses.

He says he probably wouldn't have gotten this far if it weren't for the help of some corporate sponsors, including Motorola's contribution of a radar system for the mother ship and Panasonic's loan of a $250,000 worth of tape-editing equipment, color cameras and video recorders. Shell Oil Co. chipped in 20,000 gallons of aviation fuel.

The idea was born out of frustration when he was sent by CNN to cover the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. To get to the story, he tried leasing a powerboat to break through the military's blockade and even considered crash landing a plane on the beach, said Ted Kavanau, Mr. DeCaro's former boss at CNN.

Another time he was deep in the jungle of Nicaragua to interview guerrilla leaders. "I was in there for nine weeks," he says. "I had great stories but no way to get them out."

Mr. DeCaro's first plan was to sell his flying newsroom service to a television network for $6.5 million a year. His newest approach, one that he hopes will make it more attractive to news operations during times of shrinking budgets, is to pool the

service among a number of customers.

He says he is negotiating with ABC, Fox, a Paris-based communication company and a Japanese television network for coverage of the Middle East war if one breaks out. Under the plan, each would pay $20,000 for each day they make use of the service.

He rejects any thoughts that he won't be able to fly his drones over the battlefield. "You just watch me," he says with confidence.

Charles Walker, director of news production for ABC, is one of those who will be watching. "I'm probably one of those who called him crazy," Mr. Walker says of Mr. DeCaro, "but we put that tag on a lot of people. He has something that could be the real product of the future."

Mr. DeCaro's concept is so new, Mr. Walker says, that "we're not sure where it can fit into our operations. It's a great idea, but we're not sure where it fits. We're still looking at it."

AAI's role in the venture is to supply the drones -- which have a wingspan of 13 feet, are powered by 18-horsepower, off-the-shelf snowmobile engines and have a range of about 100 miles.

"We're the manufacturers and suppliers" of the little planes, which sell for about $130,000 each, says Daniel Blake, head of the company's unmanned-vehicle program.

The drones were first built for the military for use in spying on troop and equipment movements behind enemy lines. AAI has shipped nine systems to the Navy, the Marines and the Army, Mr. Blake said.

In addition to suppling Mr. DeCaro's Aerobureau, AAI is hoping to expand its sales in other commercial markets. Samuel Bracken, marketing manager of the program, says other potential uses include patrolling border areas for drug interdiction; detection of forest fires by the Forest Service; and reading radiation leaks during accidents at nuclear power plants.

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