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SPY PLANE ALMOST CHILD'S PLAY.

Byline: Jim Skeen Staff Writer

PALMDALE - In the battlefield of the future, a scouting squadron will be able to pull a small airplane out of a pack and send it off to get pictures of what's over the next hill.

That future is not too far off.

Engineers from Lockheed Martin in Palmdale will travel this week to the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va., for a series of demonstrations of MicroStar, a miniature spy plane.

MicroStar is being developed under the Micro Air Vehicle program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - the same organization that spurred the development of the F-117 stealth fighter.

DARPA's original goal was to make a 6-inch airplane capable of carrying a small camera that could be used for military missions, said Joe Wurts, designer of MicroStar and a national champion radio-controlled sailplane pilot.

``We can make a 6-inch airplane fly. Getting it to be militarily useful was the part we had to work on - getting the airspeed, duration and stability to get something useful back.''

The idea is to develop a small, lightweight spy plane that a soldier could carry. The plane would be outfitted with a camera that would give a scouting squadron a look at what lay ahead.

In addition to carrying a camera, MicroStar has an autopilot system and a global positioning satellite navigation system.

``We want to make it so the user doesn't have to have any special skills or aeronautics training,'' Wurts said.

Weighing less than one-half pound, the MicroStar is about 6 inches long and has a 9-inch wingspan. Powered by a rechargeable battery, the aircraft is capable of flying at more than 30 mph and operating at altitudes of 100 to 300 feet.

DARPA set a goal of flights lasting 20 minutes. Lockheed Martin has had flights lasting between 20 to 30 minutes.

The aircraft is intended for missions within a 3-mile radius.

Lockheed Martin built a 3 1/2-foot-long launcher to slingshot the aircraft, but designers also came up with a hand-launching technique similar to the motion of someone throwing a bowling ball. The team tried throwing the aircraft like a baseball but discovered that any snap of the wrist sent the airplane tumbling.

In addition to the camera, the aircraft carries a pressure sensor to help with altitude control, a sensor for airspeed and three gyroscopes to keep the aircraft stable in flight.

Lockheed Martin has also successfully tested a parachute recovery system for the airplane's return flights.

Lockheed Martin plans to make the MicroStar reusable, but also cheap enough that it could be a one-use vehicle. The company is looking at production costs of about $1,000 to $3,000 an aircraft.

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics-Palmdale is partnered with Lockheed Martin's Sanders Co.

Palmdale is responsible for the aeronautics research and the development of the airframe, power, propulsion and flight controls. Sanders is handling the sensors.

``The airframe is just the dust cover. That's what we're making - very lightweight dust covers,'' Wurts said.

Lockheed Martin has built about 100 MicroStar vehicles so far during the development of the program.

``One of the challenges was keeping track of these things. We had a high number of crashes because we would lose sight of the airplane,'' Wurts said.

The small size of the aircraft has helped with its durability. In one case, the aircraft hit a light standard, bounced off and continued flying. In another incident, a MicroStar hit the pavement, tumbled but survived.

The aircraft were also something of a curiosity to birds.

``We have video of a swallow flying around it trying to figure out what it is,'' Wurts said.

Lockheed Martin anticipates DARPA will soon announce its goals for the next phase for the program. Wurts hears among the capabilities DARPA will be looking for is the ability to fly such an aircraft into a forest and have the machine be able to successfully dodge trees on its way to its target area.

``I'm thinking 'Star Wars' and the sky bikes,'' Wurts said.

Lockheed Martin also anticipates having several hundred of the aircraft in the hands of potential customers to get some real-world evaluations and feedback on improvements.

For production, the program might be looking more toward practices of toy airplane builders than those of building real jet fighters.

Mattel, the toy maker famous for its Barbie toy line, collaborated with Lockheed Martin for the development of a toy flying wing, the X-17. Lockheed Martin assisted with the design, aerodynamics testing, airframe and propeller work for the toy.

Lockheed Martin is interested in learning Mattel's manufacturing methodologies for possible pointers on production for MicroStar, Wurts said.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

(color -- ran in AV edition only) Lockheed Martin technician Danny Gast holds the Microstar, a miniature spy plane.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 17, 2000
Words:795
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