Md.-made drone makes mark as aerial spy in gulf war

January 30, 1991|By Ted Shelsbyand Robert Ruby

It may look more like a toy than a serious fighting machine, but a small remote-controlled, pilotless plane made by AAI Corp. in Cockeysville is earning its place in military aviation history during the Persian Gulf war.

Instead of rockets or bombs, the AAI drone is equipped with television cameras and infrared equipment that can spy on troop movements day or night or pick out targets for bombing runs by B-52s or F-15s. And when bombing raids are over, the pilotless craft can circle over the area and send back live television coverage of the damage done.

The drones, called Pioneers, are also used to collect mapping information that is used to steer Tomahawk cruise missiles to their targets.

The Army and Marine Corps use Pioneer to pinpoint artillery fire. It works something like this:

BTC The television picture of the battlefield fed back from Pioneer to a command center is linked to a computerized targeting system. If the first artillery shell misses its mark, the soldier operating the system simply touches with a light pen the spot on the black-and-white television screen where the shell landed. Instantly, a computer calculates the adjustments needed on the guns to to bring the next round on target.

Battleships operating in the Persian Gulf also rely on the system to aim their big guns.

The Defense Department is also looking at the possibility of installing a laser targeting system on the tiny Pioneers to guide "smart bombs" launched by other planes to their targets.

Adam Fein, a spokesman for AAI, said there have been discussions with the Pentagon in recent months but that no contract has been awarded.

Much of its operation is cloaked in secrecy, but James H. Christner, field operations manager of the AAI Pioneer program, did say that the drones have been flying over parts of Iraq and Kuwait and sending back live television pictures of potential targets and assessing the damage of bombing raids.

Pioneer has a wingspan of 17 feet and is 14 feet long. It is powered by a 26-horsepower snowmobile engine and has a range of about 100 miles. It is guided by an electronic box with a small "stick" that the operator uses to turn the plane left or right, up or down in the same way that remote-controlled model planes operate.

The Pioneers may look something like oversized model planes, but Iraqi air-defense commanders have been trying their best to shoot them out of the sky.

On one recent rainy day, Mr. Christner said, a Pioneer drew heavy ground fire and arrived back at base with a bullet hole through its propeller. Because it was raining, a plastic propeller was used on that flight. The usual wooden blade, he said, "would have been shattered by the bullet and Pioneer would have gone down."

AAI has built about 80 Pioneers since receiving its first contract in 1985. Nearly all are based in Saudi Arabia or aboard ships in the Persian Gulf.

Five of the aircraft are assigned to the battleship Wisconsin as long-distance eyes for the ship.

Before the war erupted, Pioneers made 195 flights totaling 509 hours, according to the Pentagon. But since the fighting started, the military has put a tight lid on information related to the number of Pioneer flights.

In the Persian Gulf, they have been used to help enforce the naval blockade by identifying ships operating in the region. With a helpful shove from a small, solid-fuel rocket, a Pioneer blasts off from a ship's fantail on scouting missions up to 100 miles away, reading the names of ships 2,000 feet below.

Petty Officer Neil Wood, 22, of Carrollton, said the camera housed in the belly of the plane has an 11-to-1 zoom ratio and that "its images are amazingly good." Once he watched the crew of an Italian tanker play soccer on their deck.

"It was pretty neat," he said. "They had set up nets so they wouldn't lose the ball."

Donald J. Aiton, an AAI field engineer who is serving aboard the Wisconsin as an adviser to the Navy crew flying the Pioneers, said the craft are based on an Israeli design but are heavily modified by AAI.

The Israeli version of Pioneer, called Mastiff, captured the attention of military officials around the world during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982.

The Israeli air force flew the craft over Lebanon's strategic Bekaa Valley, a 10-by-20-mile region protected by what was considered at the time the world densest air defense. The area was packed with surface to air missiles, and there were 29 batteries with more than 350 of the Soviet Union's latest anti-aircraft rockets.

By using Mastiff, which spied on the region from a height of about 4,000 feet, the Israeli military knew the exact location of every missile site, which enabled pilots to destroy all of them in the first few hours of the conflict.

The United States was so impressed with the Mastiff's performance that it awarded AAI its first contract in 1985 to develop a similar system. At first, AAI worked with Mazlat Ltd., the Israeli company that developed the Mastiff, but eventually took over full production.

Each Pioneer costs about $500,000, Mr. Christner said. The equipment in the craft can cost an equal amount, bringing the total price to nearly $1 million. He said Pioneer is a "very cheap system" if you compare it to having a front line fighter plane, with a pilot, flying a reconnaissance mission.

AAI says it knows of the loss of only one craft when its engine cut off suddenly. The craft was recovered and sent back to Cockeysville for an overhaul.

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