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DARPA Makes the Best Tools of War
Silent, Tiny, Guardian "Wasp" Watches Over Troops in Baghdad
02/21/2007 11:57 AM ET
War always drives technological innovation as opposing forces invest in anything that may lend greater tactical advantage over enemies, but Tony Tether, director of the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, reveals that this process for the war on terror started long before the American public realized the conflict had begun.

Tether tells Noah Shachtman that as the government first started to grapple with the threat of transnational terrorism in the mid-90s, research dollars began to be invested in new technologies that would boost the effectiveness of small unit operations. It was clear then that the biggest danger wouldn't come on the battlefield between two conventional forces, so the process of innovation turned the dominant thinking towards compact and portable.

One gadget that had been under development for years before 9/11 has become an essential tool for soldiers in Iraq. Tether described how the WASP came to being in his interview with Shachtman.

TT: One of the major things we knew a small unit would need, especially in a city, was situational awareness. Knowing what's on the next block -- not what's 10, 15 miles away. So we developed -- we already had been developing -- a small platform that we call Wasp. It was based on a multifunctional technology approach. This was in the Defense Sciences Office here. The program manager said, We really want things to be electric-driven because they're very quiet, very efficient. Though, usually, if you put just a battery on an airplane you get only 15 minutes of flight time. But why do we have to do it that way? Why can't we make the structure of the airplane the battery? And if we do that we should be able to get much better performance. Well, he developed a little thing called the Wasp, and in the initial version the wings were actually the battery. He found that by doing it that way, rather than 15 minutes of flight time, we were able to get an hour and a half to two hours of time. Once that happened we realized we could put sensors on it. Then we put a comlink on it and GPS.

NS: Sure, and that drains battery time.

TT: And that drains battery time. But we were still maintaining well over an hour of flight time. That little Wasp is in use in Iraq today.

NS: Do you have a sense of ?, I mean, is it in use in tens, hundreds of units?

S: Well, I know it's in use in close to 200 of them. And it's being used by small units--small units that are using it, as they consider it, like a guardian angel. And the reason they like it is because it's very quiet. It can fly over them, and it can't be seen because it's so small. And it can't be heard because it's electric-driven. That exactly fits into the original concept we had way back in the 90s.

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