Out in the oceans, that seagull way above may be packing a camera.
The U.S. Navy is experimenting with small, unmanned aircraft to keep an eye on sea routes and to intercept drug smugglers. The military service also is testing blimps for an eagle-eye view.
The unmanned aircraft are tiny compared to their big brother drones that are used to blast away terrorists in the Middle East. The little battery-powered craft weigh only 13 pounds and can be put in the air with a human hand as if they were model planes.
They carry no armament but they do have an electro-optical and infrared video camera. Other services also are buying the devices from the manufacturer, AeroVironment, Inc., in California. The craft, called a Puma, has a wingspan of just over nine feet. The Puma can fly for two hours and has a nine mile range at 23 mph.
That means the little plane can quietly fly above sea traffic and let its controller know what is going on.
The Military Sealift Command has been testing these devices as well as what the Navy calls a tethered aerostat. This is a blimp that can be deployed 2,000 to 3,000 feet above a vessel. The U.S. Southern Command said that these aerial platforms are being tested to see if they can seek out organized crime in Operation Martillo in both oceans.
The blimp and the unmanned aircraft are much cheaper to operate than helicopters, noted the Southern Command.
“In the current fiscal environment, U.S. 4th Fleet is exploring innovative, cost effective solutions that can address the capability gaps caused by budget cuts. Aerostats and unmanned aircraft systems are platforms that warrant more research due to the benefits of enhanced fuel efficiency, payload capacity, and persistence,” said Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris. “By leveraging the unique capabilities each platform has to offer, we can bring low-cost, high-tech tools to maintain a robust detection and monitoring mission for Operation Martillo.” He is commander of the U.S. Fourth Fleet that has responsibility for the oceans in the Caribbean and Central and South America. He was quoted in a news release.
Some testing was done by the crew of the USNS Swift out of Key West, Florida, which is now on anti-drug duty.