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ROBO-COPTER: DEAD OR ALIVE?

AW_09_06_2004_910.jpgDepending on who you talk to, the Pentagon's plan for a fleet of unmanned, heavily-armed helicopters is either in great shape or on the verge of falling apart.According to Aviation Week, defense contractors are hitting a number of major milestones for Darpa's Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft (UCAR) program. That's the effort to build key technologies for a future robo-copter armada, by 2006. The machines themselves wouldn't be ready for action for at least another decade or two.But despite the long horizon, software to let the copters work as a team is being coded; laser radar obstacle-avoidance systems are being designed. Mock-ups of airframes straight out of science fiction are being built.UCAR_LM.jpgWhat's more, simulations have shown that, by adding drones to the mix, helicopter teams get a whole lot more vicious and a whole lot harder to shoot down. With the fear of losing a pilot gone, the unmanned copters could go after simulated enemies way more aggressively.That's the good news. The bad is that the Army who originally funded the UCAR program has gotten cold feet. And until someone can be found to pick up the tab, the next, $160 million phase of the UCAR effort is on hold.It's the latest in a series of problems for the Army's copter programs. Flying low and slow over hostile zones, its current band of Apaches and Blackhawks has been disturbingly easy for insurgents to take down. Its copter-of-the-future, the Comanche, has been cancelled. And now, it looks like an unmanned replacement is just too far-off for the Army to fund during wartime.THERE'S MORE: Gregg Easterbrook gives a quick overview of the next wave of drones for the New Republic. Star Trek gets a mention.

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