British robot set for Bosnia spy mission: French Army wants to use a pilotless plane built in the UK to monitor Muslim safe areas

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The Independent Online
A BRITISH robot reconnaissance plane could soon go into action in Bosnia - with the French Army.

The small pilotless plane was developed in just a year and will enable the French to oversee large areas with fewer troops, exploiting the West's biggest advantage over the local militias - technology.

The British Army is committed to a much more expensive system, Phoenix, designed in 1985 and not due in service until 1995. It takes six weeks to train soldiers to use the French Army system, whereas it could take six months to learn to use Phoenix.

The French Army first tried the British 'toy plane', which they call Mart (Mini Avion de Reconnaissance de Telepilote), in the Gulf in 1991. They were so impressed that they recently invited experts from UN headquarters in Zagreb to trials in the south of France and Champagne region, where the terrain is similar to Bosnia. The UN team has sent its report to New York where the final decision will be made, but the French are already preparing to send the Mart section of 6th Artillery Regiment to Bosnia.

The trials showed that the spy plane will extend a French battalion's coverage by 30 miles - the sort of coverage normally associated with a division of 20,000 troops. The French have a 1,900- strong battalion based in north- west Bosnia and 800 troops in Sarajevo. The plane's uses could include monitoring the position of stockpiled weapons and route reconnaissance to prevent ambushes, which have occurred recently.

The firm that builds the system, Laserlink of Maidenhead, has tried to interest the Ministry of Defence, but yesterday it received a letter from Jonathan Aitken, Minister of State for Defence Procurement, saying that the MoD was 'aware of the system they had to offer' but that the requirement for an Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) is to be met by the GEC-Marconi Phoenix system.

Mart costs just pounds 3m for 12 of the small, propeller-driven planes, two launchers and two ground stations where the controller can see what the plane is seeing in 'real-time'. He can zoom in on areas of interest and, if he sees anything, can take a print with the exact date, time, height and location recorded. Mart is powered by a two-cylinder 342cc engine and carries two cameras, one pointing forwards and a moveable one that points downwards. The cameras can be any combination of colour or black and white TV, low-light television or infra-red which reacts to heat. At night, Mart would usually have the low-light TV facing forward and the infra-red downward.

The cost of the much more expensive Phoenix is being kept confidential but the Independent understands that the pilotless planes cost pounds 250,000 each, a launcher more than pounds 1m and a ground station pounds 4m.

UN forces in Bosnia are being doubled, from about 7,000 to more than 15,000, to oversee the six UN 'safe areas' for Muslims. None of the extra troops will be British, and it is not certain whether the French will send more. The UN already has satellites and manned aircraft over Bosnia but the 'toy plane' will give an army colonel his own very precise source of information.

By spying ahead, the plane also reduces the risk to ground troops. And if the locals try to shoot down Mart it does not matter. Expensive aircraft and irreplaceable pilots and soldiers are not put at risk.

Mike Way, the project co-ordinator, said yesterday: 'It took a year to develop. A lot of it was off- the-shelf and a lot of it we tested and built ourselves.'

(Photograph omitted)