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Drone Aircraft Detect IEDs

[No doubt great comfort to the survivors of IED attacks.]

April 5, 2005 The Associated Press

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. - In the skies over Iraq, the number of remotely piloted aircraft - increasingly crucial tools in tracking insurgents, foiling roadside bombings, protecting convoys, and launching missile attacks - has shot up to more than 700 now from just a handful four years ago, military officials say.

As the U.S. military continues to shift its emphasis to anti-insurgency and anti-terrorism missions, the drone aircraft are in such demand that the Pentagon is poised to spend more than $13 billion on them through the end of the decade.  And they are being put into service so quickly that the various military and intelligence branches are struggling to keep pace with the increased number of pilots required and with the lack of established policy and strategy on how to use them.

There are about a dozen varieties in service now, from the 4.5-pound Ravens that fly just above treetops, to the giant Global Hawks that can soar at 60,000 feet and take on sophisticated reconnaissance missions.

One of the command centers for the drone aircraft is at Nellis Air Force Base, spread among a half-dozen dimly lit trailers just off the Las Vegas Strip.  Small teams of remote-control warriors nudge joysticks to fly armed Predator aircraft 7,500 miles away in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Once the Predators take off there, the air crews here take over.

The Predator, which can carry Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, is the best-known of the remotely piloted fleet.  It is an ungainly, propeller-driven craft that flies as slowly as 80 miles per hour, and can loiter continuously for 24 hours or more at 10,000 to 15,000 feet above the battlefield.

Pilots and co-pilots, who operate the Predator's zoom lens, radar, and infrared sensors, sit side-by-side before an array of consoles and computer screens that let them see what the Predator sees while they talk to troops on the ground by radio or e-mail. Soldiers and ground spotters can receive live video images from the Predator on specially equipped laptop computers.

Commanders say the aircraft have played a pivotal role recently by attacking insurgent mortar teams and warning convoys of suspicious roadblocks that could be ambushes.

To bury roadside bombs, insurgents often douse the street with gasoline, ignite it, and dig up the heat-softened asphalt to lay the explosive.  The Predator heat sensors detect the hot strips, and warn nearby troops, military officials said.

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