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Businessweek Archives

A Pilotless Plane To Snoop Over Bosnia

Developments to Watch


BEGINNING NEXT MONTH, the skies of Bosnia will be patrolled by Predator--an unmanned surveillance plane equipped with some of the U.S. military's most sophisticated cameras and radar. An earlier version of Predator, whose prime contractor is San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., began flying missions in Bosnia last summer. Among other exploits, it confirmed that Serbian guns had not been pulled back from Sarajevo as promised. Now, three Predators have been fitted with an advanced, all-weather radar system from Westinghouse Electric Corp.

Predator, a 2,000-pound plane with a 48-foot wingspan, can stay aloft for 60 hours. That's almost three days--far longer than manned aircraft. What's more, if the unmanned vehicle gets shot down, "the pilot just turns the key off and goes to lunch, 260 miles away," says Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., president of General Atomics Aeronautical. Predator costs less than $4 million, or a tenth the price of a military recon jet. Out of the line of fire, Cassidy says, Predator could be used for monitoring oil spills, forest fires, river traffic, and national borders.EDITED BY PETER COYReturn to top

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PIPELINE COMPANIES USE SO-called intelligent pigs to travel through pipes and look for damage. The mechanical systems are good at finding wall-thinning corrosion but can't detect small cracks. To find those, inspectors fill a pipe with water and jack up the pressure to see if it springs a leak--not an ideal solution.

Pipetronix in Karlsruhe, Germany, says it has an answer with a new addition to the pipeline zoo: the Rissprufmolch, or "crack-inspecting salamander." It spots cracks using 896 transducers that send out overlapping waves of ultrasound. The sheer number of transducers provides the salamander with ultrakeen vision. It can detect cracks as short as a centimeter, even if the walls of the crack are pressed together.

The ultrasonic salamander--developed with Germany's Fraunhofer research centers--is battery-powered. It is pushed along by fluid flowing through pipes up to 56 inches wide. Because it may have to travel hundreds of miles before coming up for air, it can record hundreds of gigabytes of inspection data on digital tape. No petting or purchasing allowed: It's only for Pipetronix' own inspectors.EDITED BY PETER COYReturn to top


DEPRESSION CLAIMS MANY VICTIMS, BUT only a fraction of them are actually at risk of suicide. The problem is figuring out which ones. Psychiatrists administer questionnaires and other behavioral tests, but that's an inexact science. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois' College of Medicine in Chicago have devised what may be a tipoff test--a way to spot signs of suicidal tendencies in a patient's blood.

Scientists discovered years ago that the brains of suicide victims reveal high levels of a protein called 5-HT2a. This didn't help doctors at the bedside, though, because it's impossible to measure the level of 5-HT2a in the brain of a living person. Now a team led by pharmacologist Ghanshyam N. Pandery has found high levels of 5-HT2a somewhere else: in the platelets of 43 people who had attempted suicide. Because platelets circulate in the bloodstream, they can be easily inspected for the telltale protein.

Pandery says he isn't sure why elevated levels of 5-HT2a should appear in the platelets of potential suicide victims. But whatever the cause, if the new test proves an effective marker in larger studies, it could become a powerful tool to prevent suicide.EDITED BY PETER COYReturn to top

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