Learning to fly a helicopter takes hundreds of hours, and even then few pilots feel safe maneuvering one over enemy terrain or forest fires. Yet missions such as these are precisely what choppers are good for, where on-the-fly surveillance may mean the difference between life and death. It doesn´t take a genius to appreciate the potential benefits of a miniature copter, mounted with a remote-control camera, that flies itself.

To build one, though, takes real ingenuity, as choppers are not inherently aerodynamic. Although dozens of contractors are building customized autonomous copters for the military, Israeli manufacturer Steadicopter is the first company to build one cheaply, in a design readily adaptable to myriad governmental and civilian applications, on a virtually unlimited range of flight platforms. The $150,000 standard model weighs just 18 pounds. It can take off from the top of a truck and requires no flight skills, says company spokesman Amir Rochman. The operator simply inputs GPS coordinates on a laptop, and the chopper uses gyros, accelerometers, and barometric and ultrasonic altitude instruments to hold a steady course, sending back video as it flies.

Beyond firefighting and defense, the copter, which will be available by December, is expected to be popular with news agencies, provided that the Federal Aviation Administration approves it. (Currently the FAA imposes tough restrictions on all unmanned air vehicles, especially those with exposed rotor blades.) In Australia, though, where flight regulations are less strict, Steadicopter stands ready for takeoff.