The ancestor of all optionally-piloted vehicles was not a Rutan, but it was pretty, pretty close...

An extremely rare picture of the AURA in flight
(courtesy Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium)

The second AURA is preserved at the Tulsa Air & Space Museum


Customer: U.S. Air Force Ballistic Missile Organization (BMO)
Main contractor: Aeromet, Inc., Tulsa, Oklahoma

Type:  optionally manned surrogate reconnaissance UAV

Program:  Autonomous Unmanned Reconnaissance Aircraft (AURA) (proprietary)

Powerplant: 1 x 115 hp (85.75 kW) Lycoming O-235-C
                    later fitted with 1 x Lycoming IO-360-B1E

Significant date: 1986

The unsung ancestor to all modern UAVs was the AURA, the first auto-landing, remotely-piloted vehicle ever produced. It was developed by Aeromet, a 30-year old company specialized in special mission aircraft, optical measurements, and atmospheric sciences. In terms of special mission aircraft, Aeromet can perform a variety of aircraft modifications, along with installing electronic equipment and instrumentation, perform tests on an aircraft, such as one used for guided missiles, and offer support in engineering and fabrication.

In 1986, the Air Force Ballistic Missile Organization (BMO) sought an aircraft capable of operating in the re-entry corridor (hazard area) during missile tests. Aeromet Inc. of Tulsa, Oklahoma, converted two Cozy Mark IV canard aircraft (patterned after Burt Rutan’s Long-EZ canard design) into a remotely controlled version for use with the US military, dubbing it the Autonomous Unmanned Reconnaissance Aircraft (or AURA in short) in answer to this request.

The AURA was an unmanned vehicle that transitioned from manual control during takeoff to automatic operation during flight and landing. One of the earliest of unmanned aerial vehicles, it was built in Jenks, Oklahoma, and designed by Ray Booker to orbit ballistic missile test launch sites to gather data and video. AURA possessed the ability to receive updated mission instructions while in flight. The AURA was the first auto-landing, remotely-piloted vehicle ever developed. It was powered by a 115 hp (85.75 kW) Lycoming O-235-C flat-four engine fitted with a two-blade pusher propeller.

Three AURA aircraft are said to have been developed and tested until the program, initially aimed at US and NATO armed forces, was discontinued by the military. However, the Aeromet company itself only built two entire AURAs. The first example [N11AU] suffered substantial damage in an accident on March 2, 1989, in Austin, Texas. Only the second example [N16AU], built in 1990, is still registered in the US, and is located at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum as the "Aeromet AURA Spy Plane". Other UAV developments of Rutan's Long-EZ design were developed by Scaled Composites for California Microwave as the CM-30/CM-44 series.

Population: 3 [N11AU (c/n 001), N16AU (c/n 002), unknown]

Wingspan: 7.96 m
Wing area: 7.62 m²
Length overall: 5.34 m
Empty weight: 363 kg
Maximum fuel weight: 197 liters
Maximum payload: 181 kg
Maximum take-off/launch weight: 726 kg
Mission payload: FLIR, video or other sensor as required
Launch take-off type: conventional wheeled take-off; runway 915 m
Recovery, landing type: Conventional wheeled landing

Maximum level speed: 190 kts.
Cruising speed: 110-167 kts.
Stall speed: 65 kts.
Service ceiling: 20,000 ft.
Maximum range: 2,000 nm
Maximum endurance: 12 hours

Crew/passengers: none (unmanned)

Main sources:
- L3 Communications Aeromet website
- Tulsa Air and Space Museum website
- Ray Booker on Oklahoma State University's website
- Oklahoma State University 2001 Distinguished Alumni
- Commerce Folio Vol.8, N°4
- UAV Center


Many thanks to Kim Jones from the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium for providing extra material for this article.

More about Ray Booker

Ray Booker, Ph.D. President and CEO of Aviation Technologies and CEO of Aeromet, Inc., takes flight with his dreams. As the owner and CEO of a half dozen companies, Dr. Booker has propelled his entrepreneurial spirit into being a major force in the aerospace industry in Tulsa. He first graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1957 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aero/ Mechanical Engineering. He then received his master's and doctorate in Meteorology from Pennsylvania State University.

Engineer, scientist, author, researcher and helicopter and jet pilot, he is also a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, he has received numerous awards for research and development of original equipment and techniques used in airborne meteorological measurement. He also served as a broadcast meteorologist on Oklahoma and Pennsylvania television stations, and developed and taught the first university course in television weathercasting.

His inventions include airborne optical systems for tracking missiles, an autonomous unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and many engineering and meteorological instrument systems. More than 30 instrument systems widely used today bear Booker's mark. He developed legislation to set national standards for weather modification and published over 60 papers and major reports on engineering and meteorological measurement systems.

Dr. Booker is a Life member of the OSU Alumni Association. He recently completed a term as chairman of the OSU Foundation Board of Trustees. He has served on the Executive Committees of the American Meteorological Society and other professional organizations. He serves on several university academic advisory boards including the OSU CEAT Associates and many leadership roles for the Tulsa Ballet, Oklahoma Sinfonia and other community service organizations.