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SoCal company brings unmanned vehicles to war

February 16, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
The possibilities for unmanned flight seem endless and much of that future is being invented and built here in Southern California. That technology is changing how wars are fought and surveillance is conducted. At first glance it looks like a bird, or even a large bug, and that's the whole idea.

Furiously flapping its wings to stay aloft, this robot aircraft may be the future of unmanned air vehicles. It is being designed by engineers at AeroVironment in Simi Valley.

"It involves a whole new level of extremely small mechanical engineering. It involves advanced software engineering, and it involves a new level of energy efficiency," said Steven Gitlin, AeroVironment directory of marketing and strategy.

Perhaps a whole new level of warfare too. The machine is being made for the U.S. government. Future versions could literally give American forces a fly-on-the-wall capability, allowing them to watch and listen to an enemy.

More conventional unmanned aerial vehicles have already become a mainstay of military operations around the world.

Christopher Thompson first flew an AeroVironment Raven in Afghanistan. He considers it a life-saver.

"We would use it for reaction to ambush and things," said Thompson. "So if we took attacks on the base, it was a simple system to set up and send out and try to locate where the attack was coming from, rather than sending out people to try to locate it."

Another AeroVironment UAV currently being used by the military is the Wasp. From a distance the machine could pass for a hawk circling above. It is extremely quiet and can send video down to its operator, even in the dark.

Unlike competing companies that specialize in larger aircraft, AeroVironment is finding a niche and success with smaller designs.

The success of these unmanned aerial vehicles has allowed AeroVironment to almost double in size in the past three years. And this company is still hiring.

The company has dozens of jobs listed on its Web site and they see more business ahead in the private sector.

"Such as law enforcement, such as traffic monitoring, even facilities security. So we're working hard to expose different segments of the market to this kind of capability," said Gitlin.

Police could use one of these machines to search a house without sending anyone into harm's way.

The possibilities for unmanned flight seem endless and much of that future is being invented and built here in Southern California.


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