Once a kid's backyard toy and now a soldier's battlefield tool, the model airplane may soon expand to new terrain and a less expected set of people: cell phone users.
A California company is testing a pilotless plane that can fly 12 miles high for a week straight with an antenna to beam cell phone and Internet signals places they can't go now or, to the frustration of the wireless, only go intermittently.
Telecommunications is just one everyday use envisioned for this kind of plane - called an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV - which is used by the armed forces for spying, surveillance and bombing missions considered, in industry speak, as too "dull, dirty or dangerous" for service personnel.
But like the Internet before it, thousands of entrepreneurs foresee the technology developed and paid for by the military to be turned into countless civil and commercial uses such as search and rescue, storm chasing, movie filming and utility line inspection. Dozens from the industry came to Baltimore last week for a trade show to display the parts to that future, such as briefcase-sized planes, laptop-sized monitors and hand-held ground controls made in the image of Nintendo.
"It's expensive technology, so only the military had been investing, but now we're seeing other government agencies expressing interest such as NASA, Border Patrol and the Coast Guard," said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade association sponsoring the Baltimore convention. "There also are unlimited commercial applications, and as prices come down we'll see an array of things. My crystal ball says five to 10 years."
Simple unmanned airplanes have been used in combat back to World War II and Vietnam, when cameras were strapped to the wings as a way to collect still surveillance photos. After a years-long lull when the planes were deemed too costly and ineffective, advanced technology and the 1991 Gulf War drew renewed interest and government funding in the planes in the 1990s.
The modern versions are used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and can drop a bomb on a selected target or transmit real-time video of insurgents over a hill or around a building to a soldier's laptop in the field.
Some issues that need to be resolved before unmanned planes become more common in U.S. skies are high prices, use of airspace alongside commercial planes and the public's acceptance of robot planes that could take away human jobs and powers, Davidson said.
For now, the industry remains dependent on the military.
A study by the Teal Group, a Virginia-based aerospace and defense market analysis firm, estimates that about 75 percent of the spending globally is by the U.S. military. The firm said unmanned plane spending will more than double over the next 10 years from $2 billion annually to $4.5 billion, totaling about $30 billion over the decade. And while commercial uses face obstacles that could cause delays over that time, civil uses will begin in the next several years, the firm said.
The U.S. Border Patrol may be among the first. It conducted a pilot program last year using unmanned planes in Arizona to monitor illegal crossings from Mexico. The agency said the planes allowed for greater coverage in rugged areas and assisted in several rescues and hundreds of apprehensions.
For its part, the Federal Aviation Administration is studying how to integrate unmanned planes into the airspace.
The planes, as well as some unmanned ground and water vehicles, vary in size and shape. The aircraft also vary in operational altitudes.
BAI Aerosystems, an Easton-based manufacturer, makes small planes that executives expect to be used by police following suspects, search-and-rescue groups, farmers deciding when to harvest and others. Among the smallest planes is the Evolution, weighing about 7 pounds and flying up to 1,000 feet high for about 100 minutes on battery power. Along with the software, monitoring equipment and other parts, it costs about $100,000.
But as production ramps up - the company produces about five a week now - the price will come down, officials said.
"We've had a lot of interest from police departments," said Jay Willmott, BAI executive vice president. "Big departments could afford it, but it still may be too much of a gamble for smaller ones."
At the other end of the spectrum are the large planes that can fly for a week at 65,000 feet, above commercial air traffic and weather. AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, Calif., which makes such planes, has one called Global Observer that has a 50-foot wingspan and is fueled with liquid hydrogen.
Ted Wierzbanowski, managing director of the company, said agencies focusing on border control, mapping and weather are interested in the plane because of the vast spaces it can survey with a built-in camera. It's also the kind of plane that would make for an antenna in the sky: As one plane with its antenna readies to land, a second one could take off, keeping service continuous like a satellite.
"Within two years," he said, "we may actually have reliable cell phone service."