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[] Silver Fox: Drones See, Smell Evil From Above,

Drones See, Smell Evil From Above  

By Noah Shachtman 

02:00 AM Mar. 24, 2003 PT

The generals have their drones. Now soldiers in the field are getting
robotic spies of their own. 

The newest drone in the U.S. military's growing robotic arsenal looks
like an Apollo-era model rocket, and is small enough to fit in a golf
bag. So it probably isn't going to make Saddam Hussein quiver in his

But the Silver Fox unmanned aircraft could prove useful to military
commanders on the ground in Iraq as an airborne chemical weapons
detector and a set of eyes over the battlefield. 

Top generals direct unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, like the Predator
and Global Hawk to scout major strategic objectives. There's no way a
sergeant major in the middle of a firefight could use one of them to see
what's over the next sand dune, however. By the time such a request
worked its way up the chain of command, the battle would have been over
for days. 

On the other hand, battalion leaders -- who command groups of hundreds,
not hundreds of thousands -- now control the Silver Foxes. 

"The commander in the field can use (Silver Fox) as he pleases, at his
own discretion," said James Massey, editor of Unmanned Vehicles

John Mittleman, an associate director at the Office of Naval Research,
added, "There's no process involved, no asking for permission, no
'Mother, may I?'" 

The 8-foot-long, sausage-shaped drone has a propeller in the front, and
detachable wings and tail fins -- all of which fold neatly into a
converted golf club bag. It isn't the only tactical UAV slated for
testing during the second Gulf War. But the Fox has capabilities the
other drones in its class lack. 

At 20 pounds and 6 feet in width, the Fox can stay in the air several
times longer than the Dragon Eye, the Marines' 5-pound mini-drone with a
45-inch wingspan. And it flies higher -- 500 to 1,000 feet in the air. 

Unlike the Eye, however, the Fox can't be thrown in a backpack and
carried around by a single Marine. So it's not quite as portable. But
all the Eye can do is see. The Fox can not only see but also has a sense
of smell, picking up traces of nerve gases and blister agents with a
detector developed at Sandia National Laboratories. 

Built by Advanced Ceramics Research of Tuscon, Arizona, the Fox is
equipped with a half-ounce SnifferSTAR that uses a series of tiny
sensors -- collectively about the size of a pat of butter -- connected
to a quartz plate. When particles in the air hit the sensors, the plate
vibrates. Different types of particles have their own "signature"
vibration. So it's reasonably easy to determine if the detector has
picked up any toxic traces. The whole process takes as little as 20

The detector is one of the few pieces of advanced equipment in the
drone. The Fox relies on gyroscopes widely used in automobiles, and GPS
chips designed for cell phones, according to Vince Castelli, an engineer
at the Naval Surface Warfare Center's Carderock Division. It runs on Glo
Fuel, which is what most model airplanes rely on. And the drone launches
from a relatively simple compressed-air catapult. 

"We took commercially available technology and put it to military use,"
Castelli said. 

Originally, the UAV was built for the most gentle of military purposes
-- to monitor whales swimming in the water near Navy ships. 

Federal environmental regulations require the Navy to make sure that
whales are not in the area when it conducts trial bombing runs or tests
of its ultra-loud sonar. The Silver Fox, completed in the late summer of
2002, was supposed to handle that whale-watching mission. 

But when the Navy Operations Group -- a technology-minded group of
officers, nicknamed "Deep Blue," who work directly for the chief of
naval operations -- caught wind of the project, that assignment changed
radically. Marine mammals were out. Marines on the ground were in. 

That task may change yet again, as more Silver Foxes are built. 

"If you could design a little weapon that weighs half a pound," the
Office of Naval Research's Mittleman mused, the drone could become more
than a mere observer. The Silver Fox could become a robotic fighter,
dealing pain from 500 feet.

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