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SOCOM doesn't reckon the Orion and its makers Aurora - now owned by Boeing - are ready for prime time, though, contending that Aerovironment are the only ones who can really make HALE aircraft at the moment.

"Only one responsible source and no other supplies or services will satisfy the agency requirements," it says.

Aerovironment, naturally enough, agrees with this. The company reckons it has a lock on various unique technologies.

"AV develops and commercialises entirely new solutions that offer our customers valuable new capabilities," says Tim Conver, Aerovironment's chairman and CEO. "We believe that Global Observer represents a game-changing new capability for defense, homeland security and, ultimately, commercial applications.

"We have developed the unique sub-systems necessary to enable this new category of aircraft. We intend... to deliver a brand new value proposition – affordable persistence in the stratosphere."

Aerovironment reckons (pdf) HALE comms platforms could provide a good alternative to satellites or 3G phone towers. It suggests Global Observer-like craft could orbit at 65,000 feet over countryside and cities, far above weather and air traffic, offering up to 50 Mbit/sec two-way connections to ground stations whose antennae could be "as small as two inches".

The company figures that a single Observer drone in flight (equating to one up and one or two on the ground) could cover an urban area 50 miles in diameter or a rural one five times as wide. Aerovironment says it's already carried out successful trials with airborne 3G cells using off-the-shelf handsets, and HDTV relays too.

Comms relay seems like much the most likely military mission, though it might perhaps be a while until SEALs and Green Berets can get HD sports coverage in Afghanistan. Still, it does seem quite plausible that Afghans will soon be able to get all sorts of American propaganda psyops 'casts from on high.

As if that wasn't enough, the Aerovironment chaps have another trick up their sleeve - a portable tube-launched combination drone/missile called Switchblade. This can be fired off from a soldier's shoulder, popping out its wings and flying about for up to 15 minutes as an eye in the sky. When it finds a target - a sniper, a mortar team, whatever - or is passed a target by another observer, it can plunge down like a miniature mechanoid kamikaze, detonating its explosive warhead on impact.

Never a dull moment in the pork-tech sector, that's for sure. Aerovironment's press release is here. ®

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