With a two-second burst of flame from a rocket launcher, the small, unmanned airplane was climbing hundreds of feet above the Harford County countryside.
The elaborate show-and-tell at the Harford County Airpark yesterday had two purposes:
For Hunt Valley-based AAI Corp. to give the news media a look at unmanned aircraft it has sold to the Department of Defense. The planes are being used on Navy ships and by the Marines in the Persian Gulf region for high-technology reconnaissance. The Iraqi army already has a nickname for them: Zionist war drones.
The event also gave Chuck de Caro, a former Cable News Network correspondent and self-described renegade newsman, a stage for pitching his flying newsroom, which he touts as the next big breakthrough in television technology. De Caro's fledgling company, Herndon, Va.-based Aerobureau Corp., would use the AAI-made unmanned aircraft as a way of gathering news in dangerous or hostile areas, such as battlefields or around nuclear plant accidents.
To AAI, the program to develop and manufacture unmanned aircraft, called RPVs (Remotely Piloted Vehicles), has been worth about $100 million in Defense Department contracts over the past five years.
Their use in the Persian Gulf region is the first time the U.S. military has applied the technology in a hostile area.
"This thing is a miniature TV station," explained Sam Bracken, a marketing official with AAI.
Each plane, when equipped with cameras and other sensing gear, can cost as much as $500,000, he said. The alternative would be to use manned fighter jets, costing $20 million or more each, for similar reconnaissance missions. The later would mean risking the pilot and the expensive aircraft.
The plane now being used by U.S. forces in the Mideast is called the Pioneer. It is 14 feet long, has a wingspan of about 17 feet and can cruise for more than five hours as high as 15,000 feet.
The Pioneer can be used for, among other things, surveillance of enemy troop movements during the day or night and finding targets for missiles and artillery.
Yesterday, officials with AAI and Aerobureau displayed a half-scale Pioneer, transmitting television pictures from the plane to controllers on the ground.
The technology is not new. The Israeli military made use of a similar unmanned aircraft to locate Syrian targets, according to AAI officials.
To de Caro, 40, a zealous businessman who said he had invested "every nickel to his name" in his new company, the unmanned aircraft would be a boon to highly competitive news organizations.
In his Lockheed L188C Electra, a well-equipped flying TV production studio, he envisions being able to transport a news crew anywhere in the world on short notice.
De Caro said the flying newsroom, called Aerobureau-1, can be airborne for as long as 20 hours over hostile terrain. In addition to being able to transmit television pictures via satellite, Aerobureau-1 also is designed to launch unmanned aircraft to gather video over dangerous areas.
The unmanned aircraft that would be used on Aerobureau-1 is now being developed by AAI.
There's a catch: As yet, de Caro has no takers for his flying newsroom and video drones.
"It's a crap shoot," he acknowledged. Still, de Caro, a pilot who has dodged bullets on some news stories, continues to hawk his idea.
De Caro said he is pitching it to news organizations, particularly the major networks. He also said he is getting nibbles from federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which could use the unmanned aircraft to survey major floods or other disaster zones.
The unmanned aircraft are of little use in populated areas, where a local television crew might want to use it. The Federal Aviation Administration has barred use of the planes in such areas, for safety reasons.