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Canadian army to deploy tiny, unmanned aircraft in southern Afghanistan
Murray Brewster
Canadian Press

The Skylark. (HO Photo)

HALIFAX (CP) - It may look like most radio-controlled model airplanes, but the tiny Skylark wasn't built to buzz backyards.

Instead, the mini-unmanned aerial vehicle - or UAV - will soon be used by Canadian troops to patrol the forbidding moonscape of southern Afghanistan.

Weighing less than five kilograms and able to fold into a backpack, the remote-controlled reconnaissance drone will be deployed next month with E Battery of 2 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, based in Kandahar.

"The soldiers - or operators - can carry the system with them and deploy very quickly," Capt. Nathaniel Ng said in an interview from Ottawa.

"The system is easily set up by two operators on the ground and controlled using a laptop."

Equipped with a whisper-quiet electric engine, the Skylark will be used to silently scout from the air, peering over distant ridges and snooping behind mud-walled compounds in search of Taliban insurgents.

"The video provided by the daylight camera and, at night, the infrared camera is patched directly, in real time to the operator and the company commander," said Ng.

"It therefore allows the company commander to conduct reconnaissance before putting his troops in harm's way, or provide surveillance of a specific area."

Compared with the larger, rail-launched Sperwer unmanned aircraft, the Skylark is catapulted into the air using a bungee cord and also carries fewer electronic sensors.

Canada recently purchased five Skylarks and the army has an option to buy five more, according to a document prepared for the federal Public Works Department.

The military refused to say how much each unit costs because details of the contract with the Canadian supplier for Elbit Systems Ltd. of Israel has yet to be finalized.

Seven other NATO countries are already using the Skylark.

Meanwhile, Ottawa is apparently looking at purchasing the Skylark 2, a bigger, more sophisticated version of the original Skylark.

Harsh weather can sometimes present challenges for the mini-aircraft, which can't be launched in winds greater than 30 kilometres per hour, or heavy rain.

As the conflict in Afghanistan has escalated, so too has the army's dependence on unmanned aircraft for intelligence gathering.

The French-made Sperwer - Dutch for Sparrow Hawk - has proven its worth on dozens of occasions.

In late March, when Kandahar-based Canadian reinforcements were rushed to Sangin in nearby Helmand province, the unmanned aircraft spotted a Taliban ambush in the making. With that early warning, commanders were able to avoid the potentially lethal trap.

So far, Canada's use of drones has been restricted to medium-sized and small aircraft.

It has yet to acquire any of the bigger American UAVs, such the Global Hawk or Predator, which can be armed with missiles.

© The Canadian Press 2006

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