At a time when the U.S. military is relying increasingly on unmanned aerial vehicles -- also known as UAVs or "drones" -- ever deeper connections between the drone industry and the Hoosier state have become apparent.

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

"In the name of bolstering security for our citizens, the U.S. is institutionalizing assassination as a valid policy." - Kathy Kelly, Chicago peace activist
Meanwhile, a separate public records request has revealed that Purdue University has significant involvement in research and development of drone technology.

Kathy Kelly, a Chicago-based peace activist who visited victims of drone attacks in Pakistan earlier this year, 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 said.

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."

EnerDel powering drones

One of the biggest new connections to come to light lies in Indianapolis. A Freedom of Information Act request 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 minidrones.

"This is primarily a chemistry development program for powering the on-board electronics and the propulsion systems of the UAVs," 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."

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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 Journal recently 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

In the story "Purdue and the 'flying grenades,'" about minidrone manufacturer Lite Machines' location at the Purdue Research Park in West Lafayette, Purdue and Lite Machines spokespeople said 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 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 minidrones manufactured at the request of the Navy.
"Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have become a ubiquitous part of the modern U.S. military inventory." - 2008 Crane, EnerDel contract
Lite Machines is listed on the Web site 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 the 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. counterproduction

Previous installments in this series 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 minidrone, 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 counterproductive 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 antiterror efforts.

    "The Pentagon claims that the drone attacks are an ideal strategy for eliminating Al Qaeda members," Kathy 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."

    Fran Quigley is a Visiting Professor of Law at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. He can be reached at . This story originally appeared in NUVO.