NAVY UNVEILS NEW DRONE

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 bunker.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.The Office of Naval Research gave me the first look at the Fox, slated for trial runs in the Iraqi theater.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.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.My Wired News story has more on the Sliver Fox -- including a picture of the drone.THERE'S MORE: The Pentagon is looking to invest more than $4 billion in UAVs between now and 2010, reports Washington Technology.

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