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Small Firms Turn to Drones

Technician Jeff Thornton performs a routine inspection on an Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. GoldenEye-50, an unmanned flight vehicle, in Manassas.
Technician Jeff Thornton performs a routine inspection on an Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. GoldenEye-50, an unmanned flight vehicle, in Manassas. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2005

A soldier wary of what's over the next hill can snap together the nose, tail, body and two wings of the Evolution XTS, all six pounds of it, and find out. Just load a hand-held sling shot and let the airplane fly, for 90 minutes if needed. Guide it by computer and watch real-time video stream in.

BAI Aerosystems Inc. assembles the miniature planes for the military on its factory floor in Easton. In Manassas, Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. is developing a pilotless plane with a similar mission, only this one looks like a trash can with fins and takes off like a helicopter. And in Ellicott City, the fledgling Optemax LLC, only two years old, plans to create technology for the Navy that it says would allow shoulder-launched planes to transmit data equivalent to nine DVDs in one second.

After Sept. 11, 2001, "mini" drones have created big business for small Washington area companies, those that make them and those that load them with tiny cameras and sensors.

Since the terrorist attacks, unclassified spending on drones of all sizes has jumped nearly fivefold, from $364 million in fiscal 2001 to $1.67 billion in fiscal 2006, according to the Pentagon. And the number of drones rose from 100 to more than 2,000.

"It's practically become a retail business, because it's easy for a small company to come up with a small drone," said James Jay Carafano, a senior military affairs fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "So many of these companies have dual-use technologies that can be tailored for just about any kind of mission."

The biggest chunk of money goes to the huge drones, such as the Global Hawk and Predator, that were rushed into Afghanistan and Iraq, where they dazzled the military intelligence community. For more than 24 hours at a time, those drones hover at high altitudes, scoping out enemy activity.

But the mini drones are far more common, making up about 75 percent of the military's pilotless planes. They are cheaper to build, easier to use, and popular with the ground troops because they have saved hundreds of lives, said Steven Zaloga, a senior analyst with the Teal Group Corp., a defense consulting firm in Fairfax.

Aiding their proliferation is the Pentagon's decision to give millions of dollars to the commands overseas to spend on their most pressing wartime needs without going through the time-consuming purchasing bureaucracy, Zaloga said. Getting rid of the red tape opened the flood gates for small firms.

"These mini drones gave the people with their boots on the ground mini-intelligence systems, which in turn spurred more demand," Zaloga said. "Drones are no longer just for the general sitting in his Pentagon office."

BAI Aerosystems, a division of L-3 Communications Corp., is one of the companies taking advantage of that trend. The firm employs about 80 people in Easton who design and make planes that sell for as little as $5,000 each and can be carried in backpacks.

Since opening its doors in Rockville two decades ago, the company has counted the Army and Navy as its largest customers. But no single order has exceeded $3 million, said Jay Willmott, the company's executive vice president.

That is why the company was stunned when the Army began soliciting bids for a $125 million contract to build about 550 "backpackable" pilotless planes that weighed less than 25 pounds -- airplane, battery, and laptop to control and communicate with it included.

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