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Spy Plane Chatty in Disasters

Spy drones should be not seen and not heard, right?

Not always.

There are times when the high-flying, quiet eyes and ears in the sky will serve best by serving openly – as a platform for emergency broadcasts and to facilitate cell phone calls when all established communications has suffered a knock-out blow.

That’s what became obvious to emergency responders, military and Northrop Grumman officials during the fierce California wildfires in 2008 that destroyed homes and burned thousands of acres. The idea of using the spy drone as a communications platform dawned on officials after Global Hawks assigned to Beale Air Force Base, Calif., were sent aloft for some nighttime reconnaissance of the wildfires, an official with Global Hawk-maker Northrop Grumman said at the Paris Air Show

“In the process of doing that a great discussion [arose] about what other capabilities could I provide from high altitude platforms. And obviously communications relays is one of those things,” said Ed Walby, business development director for the company’s High Altitude Long-Endurance Systems.

Global Hawk is built to carry different payloads for different missions. Developed to complement and finally replace the legendary U-2 spy plane, it’s principal mission to gather intelligence, which it does from a height of 60,000 feet.

“Instead of imagery sensors you can pack the aircraft with communications relay gear, whether for cell phone relays or normal emergency relay – those types of activities,” Walby said. Corporate, military and emergency officials were talking about this when the drones were called into service to collect images of Hurricane Ike, which hit Florida and Texas in September 2008.

It became clear from discussions with disaster relief and homeland security officials, he said, that the first thing lost in a major disaster is communications. “All your towers and fixed infrastructure tends to go down, and that’s when you need communications most,” Walby said.

And in some places, such as high in the mountains of Afghanistan, there is no infrastructure to speak of, and so using a drone “for communications relay makes a great deal of sense,” he said.

“One of the things that make a fighting force cohesive is the ability to communicate between different levels of command … You can pack a great amount of communications relay in the [Global Hawk] … for military or civilian applications. That area is being explored quite heavily right now.”

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