It's a Tuesday afternoon at a small, radio control modeler's airport near Los Angeles, and the guy bent over his model Messerschmitt Me-109 looks serious. After a lot of fiddling, he squeezes gasoline into the little piston engine and connects his toolbox-cum-battery pack to the airplane. She's a beauty: deep forest green, meticulous iron crosses on fuselage and wings. "Flies for 16 minutes before
she runs out of fuel," he boasts. Finally, the engine fires up, screaming so loudly the sound hurts my teeth. The Me-109 zips down the tarmac and wings skyward, a perfect imitation of the real thing.
"Takes 30 hours of stick time before you can do that," grunts Dave
Ganzer, plunking two Pelican cases the size of briefcases on a picnic table. He pops the cases open and in 60 seconds snaps together a gray airplane with a four-foot wingspan. It's unmarked, dirty, unimpressive. Ganzer's sidekick, Gabriel Torres, opens a third case, raises a six-foot-high antenna and connects a laptop computer to the case.
Torres: "Okay, we've got seven satellites."
"Go fly with the birds."
Ganzer hits a switch and the prop whines. He throws the plane skyward. No squeezing gasoline from a little bottle, no taxiing, away it flies. At 100 feet, Raven, as it's called, is silent, its whisper-quiet electric motor pulling it higher into the sky. The Me-109 is doing loops and rolls overhead while the Raven is simply gone, beaming back to the TV screen on Ganzer's controller a bird's-eye view of houses and driveways 500 feet below. The modeler is beside himself. "That must be spy stuff, right?" he says, as his noisy plane runs out of fuel and sputters back in.
Besides their model-like appearance, Raven and the Me-109 have about as much in common as a Formula 1 racecar and a go-kart. The Me-109 is a hobbyist's toy. Raven is indeed spy stuff—a nearly silent, lithium-sulfur- dioxide-battery-powered mini unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) prototype that AeroVironment developed for the U.S. Army. It's half the size of the company's Pointer UAV, which in 1988 became the first portable UAV that the U.S. military deployed, yet it's crammed with features that would tantalize any modeler: sophisticated infrared cameras and autopilot, an hour of flying time and a seven-mile range on a single battery charge. It takes but a few minutes of training to operate, and it needs no runway to land. Ganzer presses a button, and Raven returns automatically. It descends to a few feet above its launch point, stalls, and splats ungracefully to the ground in a hail of scattering Kevlar pieces—a technique engineered to disperse the energy of the landing—that can be quickly snapped back together for another flight. You can, in other words, launch and recover this aircraft in the mountains of Afghanistan or on a street corner in Baghdad on a moonless night. Size notwithstanding, its power, range, lightweight quality, brainpower and surveillance capabilities make it as cutting edge an airplane in its way as the new F-22 Raptor jet fighter.