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Military Tests Miniature Spy Plane

The Wasp off duty and compared to a pencil. (Image credit: AeroVironment Inc.)

If the Wasp buzzed your backyard barbecue and sent out a live video feed, you probably wouldn't notice.

The new robotic plane is designed for troops who need a peek at the enemy before going in.

The diminutive drone, about the size of a magazine, was tested recently during Navy exercises off Southern California, according to an April 4 article in the C4ISR Journal, part of the Army Times publishing group. The journal covers military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Though made with off-the-shelf products, the Wasp is nothing like remote-control planes sold at hobby shops. Its wings, which span 13 inches, carry 4.25 ounces of lithium-ion batteries. The whole rest of the plane -- including video cameras front and back -- adds just 1.75 ounces to the total 6-ounce takeoff weight.

It is launched by hand.

In 2002, a rudimentary Wasp set an endurance record for micro air vehicles (MAVs) of 1 hour and 47 minutes. It has since been outfitted with an autopilot feature that uses the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The drone was built by AeroVironment in Simi Valley, Calif. with funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

One application might be to check out enemy ships when no helicopters are available for the task.

"It has the potential to save lives during boardings," said Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Roth, communications officer of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, which ran the drone through its paces last month.

According to the C4ISR Journal article, however, it's not yet clear how or whether the Wasp will be deployed.

The much larger ScanEagle drone, with a wingspan of 10 feet, has been at work on military surveillance in Iraq. Defense contractors and government officials see these relatively inexpensive drones getting more use as the U.S. Military continues to modernize.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.