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UAVs, drones of death, what can you get for $300k?

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When we saw the price of one of the US military's latest UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), we just couldn't resist a comparison-shop. The Desert Hawk, aka Force Protection Airborne Surveillance System, is at $300,000 for a sixpack, base station and spares quite cheap as these things go, but it still looks a stiff price for a remote control model aeroplane.

Desert Hawk is cute, we accept that. You can see a picture here, where some of the construction and technology is also explained. It's bungee-launched, has an electric motor with one hour's endurance, and it's made out of light foam-type material that minimises damage in crashes and makes it more easily field-repairable. And of course, it takes pictures.

But it's in no sense an attack drone - essentially, it's intended to operate as a kind of sentry supplement, patrolling in the neighbourhood of bases. And as far as we can see in this rev it only follows preset flight paths, although it appears you can switch between these in mid-flight. AeroMech Engineering built 48 of them for Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, which itself is responsible for the rest of the gear, including ground station.

We don't know about you lot, but we think we'd get pretty bored having to keep a rota of six model aircraft going round the base perimeter, having to switch the batteries for each of them every hour, and not being able to play with them much when they're up there. Conceivably, being a normal security guard would be more fun.

So what can you get instead? Well, starting at the serious end we have Insitu Group's Seascan, which is intended to combine low cost with long endurance. Seascan is the basis for the Boeing ScanEagle, and is itself a descendant of the Aerosonde Laima, which managed a solo Atlantic crossing in 1998. Price? The Laima is claimed to have cost $10,000 to build, but we expect the Boeing version won't quite make it down to that bracket.

OK, so what about that intriguing notion that a UAV could in fact just be a converted, cheap, full-size aircraft? What woud you pay for one of those? The MIG21 on Ebay seems not to have been real, but the purchase and restore cost of a MIG 15 seems to be around $200,000. Not very stealthy these, though. A reasonable deal is this one third size Sukhoi SU-31, which goes for $849.99, but infrared imaging and video gear would of course be on top of that.

Here, though, is a serendipitous deal. Yak UK now seems to specialise in Yaks, but in 1999 had imported Saddam's "anthrax" plane from Estonia. The tab then for an L-29 Delfin, a jet trainer that can carry real bombs, was £35,000 plus £15,000 to make it runway-legal in the UK. There are more details, including a more current price of £50-60,000 and a fax number for the Russian Jet Co in Lithuania, here.

What was that about Saddam's anthrax plane, we hear you ask? This long-standing claim seems largely to relate to L-29s which may have been converted to "drones of death" in the second half of the 90s, which may well have been destroyed by US/UK raids in 1998. The most recent sighting of the claim is probably a retread from the UK government in its weapons of mass destruction dossier. This says: "L-29 remotely piloted vehicle programme: we know from intelligence that Iraq has attempted to modify the L-29 jet trainer to allow it to be used as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) which is potentially capable of delivering chemical and biological agents over a large area."

Still, as bangs per buck go, the L-29 looks good to us, and you get three of them for a Desert Hawk cluster while still having change for bombs. Keep away from the Gulf for now if you buy one. But The Register's tip for the ultimate in money-no-object cool is the Focke Wulf 190. There are currently no flying examples of this legendary aircraft, but Flug Werk proposes offering them in kit form for $535,000. It's a lot of L-29s, but hey... ®

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