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Home-grown drones: Part III in a series

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At a time when the U.S. military is relying increasingly on unmanned aerial vehicles – also known as UAVs or "drones" – an ongoing NUVO investigation continues to reveal ever deeper connections between the drone industry and the Hoosier state.

Newly uncovered documents show that an Indianapolis-based manufacturer of lithium-ion battery systems, EnerDel, has two multi-million dollar contracts with the U.S. Navy to develop batteries for mini-drones.

Meanwhile, a separate public records request by NUVO has revealed that Purdue University has significant involvement in research and development of drone technology.

Kathy Kelly, coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a non-profit peace advocacy group based in Chicago (www.vcnv.org), visited victims of drone attacks in Pakistan earlier this year. She said the widespread Indiana connections to drone warfare were chilling.

"In the name of bolstering security for our citizens, the U.S. is institutionalizing assassination as a valid policy," she told NUVO.

Kelly was one of 14 people recently tried on criminal trespass charges arising from a Holy Thursday prayer vigil conducted on Creech Air Force Base, the control center for many of the drone flights over Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The U.S. populace can experience even greater distance and less accountability because U.S. armed forces and CIA agents invisible to us can assassinate targets without ever leaving a base in our own country," she said. "Meanwhile, corporations that manufacture the drones and technicians who design them celebrate cutting edge technology and rising profits."

Powering the drones

One of the biggest new connections uncovered lies right here in Indianapolis. A Freedom of Information Act request by NUVO yielded two contracts issued by Crane to EnerDel, totaling $4.2 million, for research and development of lithium battery systems, called EnerDel Safety Cells, for mini-drones.

"This is primarily a chemistry development program for powering the on-board electronics and the propulsion systems of the UAV's," said Adam Hunt, director of government programs for EnerDel. "The question is, what can EnerDel provide that gives more power or more run-time, or better yet, both?"

The Crane agreement with EnerDel contains language outlining why drone technology is becoming one of the hottest areas of military contracting.

"Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have become a ubiquitous part of the modern U.S. military inventory," paragraph 3.1.1 of the 2008 contract reads. "They allow the gathering of intelligence and the delivery of weapons without endangering the life of a flight crew."

Indeed, the use of drones for targeted attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan has sharply increased under the Obama administration, with The Wall Street Journalrecently reporting that the Central Intelligence Agency launched drone strikes in Pakistan at a rate of five per week during September, killing over 120 people in that month alone.

Purdue and Drones

NUVO previously reported on mini-drone manufacturer Lite Machines' location at the Purdue Research Park in West Lafayette. At that time, Purdue and Lite Machines spokespeople told NUVO that the company's location at the research park was the extent of the relationship between the company and the university, and that they knew of no Purdue faculty or student connection to drone activity.

However, a more recent request by NUVO under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act produced a 2006 agreement between Purdue and Lite Machines, in which the university and its Birck Nanotechnology Center agreed to develop antennas for the mini-drones manufactured at the request of the Navy.

Lite Machines is listed on the website of Purdue Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an engineering professional organization, as a sponsor of the group's involvement in an aerial robotics competition. Other sponsors of the group's aerial robotics program include military contractors Northrup Grumman, Rockwell Collins and Lockheed Martin.

The records requests also revealed a $500,000 contract between Purdue and the U.S. Air Force Academy for the university's Robot Vision Lab to help network visual data collected by multiple drones.

Purdue provided the documents pursuant to NUVO's public records requests, but representatives did not respond to requests to comment on these contracts and the university's relationship with Lite Machines.

Production vs. counter-production

Previous installments in this series ("Indiana connections to drone warfare technology," news April 15-22, 2010; "Drone warfare, part 2," news, May 12-19, 2010) had already placed Indiana squarely at the heart of the issue. Earlier reports found that:

* Terre Haute-based Indiana Air National Guard's 181st Intelligence Wing analyzes data collected by drones flying over Iraq and Afghanistan,

* The Indianapolis plant of Rolls Royce manufactures the engine for the drone Global Hawk

* West Lafayette-based Lite Machines has developed a mini-drone, called the Voyeur, for the Navy.

* Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in southwest Indiana has received and issued millions of dollars in contracts for drone development.

Such relationships have doubtless been fruitful for the Indiana based companies and institutions involved. But the secretive U.S. program to launch aerial missiles via drones has been decried by some as violating international law and for generating resentment that is counter-productive to U.S. long-term interests.

Having seen the effects of drone attacks first-hand in Pakistan, Kathy Kelly has seen how such methods, and others, can erode local support for American anti-terror efforts.

"The Pentagon claims that the drone attacks are an ideal strategy for eliminating Al Qaeda members," Kelly said. "General Petraeus may perceive short-term gains. But in the long run, it's likely that the drone attacks, as well as the night raids and death squad tactics, will cause blowback."ν

This article is part three in a series by the author for NUVO.

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