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Since the 1970s, the U.S. military has used unmanned airplanes to see behind enemy lines. But each of these “drones,” which cost upwards of $15 million apiece, provides strategic intelligence only to top-ranking officials. Real-time surveillance information rarely makes it to the commander on the battlefield’s front line. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is on the verge of changing that.

In collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory, the Marine Corps plans for the first time to deploy miniature, autonomous unmanned air vehicles. Each of the 73-centimeter, 1.9-kilogram spy planes-dubbed Dragon Eyes-will carry an infrared imager, a wireless communications link and Global Positioning System software. Field soldiers will be able to assemble the five-piece plane on the spot, program the flight path, launch the craft with a flick of the wrist and view a real-time video image of enemy territory. The Marine Corps will hold field trials in the first half of 2002. Full-scale production of 1,000 units should begin by early 2003.

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