Tiny, unmanned surveillance planes are being pressed into action for reconnaissance over Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in what defense contractors call the biggest civilian deployment ever for the technology.
Ten of the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have been taking turns this week flying from the New Orleans Naval Air Station and relaying photos of the devastation below to the Air Force.
The original mission for these UAVs — a new class known as the Evolution, an upgrade over the 4-pound Dragon Eye reconnaissance drones used in Iraq — was to help in searching for stranded hurricane survivors.
But now the planes mainly are being used to assess damage to oil and gas distribution, dikes, berms and other aspects of the region's infrastructure, said Alfred Lumpkin, director of operations for ISR Group LLC, which is providing logistical support for the planes' maker, L-3 Communications Corp.
These UAVs are a far cry from their larger, more robust cousins such as the Predator that are employed by the U.S. military and intelligence services and can fire missiles and fly all day.
The battery-powered Evolution planes, which can stay aloft for two hours, are circling at a low altitude — 500 to 1,000 feet — to capture finely detailed images with their miniature cameras. They also have infrared capabilities for night missions and could be used for atmospheric sampling.
Although UAVs traditionally have been eyed for situations considered too "dull, dirty and dangerous" for human pilots, their workload is expected to expand in coming years because of the increasing sophistication of the vehicles' computers and communication systems.
ISR and L-3 say this is the largest civilian mission for UAVs to date, but drones have been used in domestic skies before.
The Border Patrol has sent UAVs to scan for illegal immigrants darting across southwestern deserts from Mexico. Remote-controlled planes also are launched for environmental studies and fire patrols.