Warplanes: Little Birds Go At Each Other


August 26, 2010: The 2 kg/4.3 pound Raven UAV has driven most competitors out of the market. But some of the losers just regroup, redesign and come back with a micro-UAV they hope can do something useful the Raven doesn’t. One of the more recent contenders is the Desert Hawk III. The original Desert Hawk was a competitor of the Raven, and the British Army and Air Force used it. But both eventually switched. The Raven had the original Desert Hawk beat in all categories that counted.

The Desert Hawk III has some new features that it hopes will claw a little business away from Raven. Desert Hawk III is a 4 kg/8.8 pound UAV with a 90 minute endurance and a payload of up to a kilogram (1.1 pound). There are three different sensor payloads you can quickly attach. One is a turret mounted camera that keeps aimed at a specific spot below, no matter which direction the UAV turns. Another has a wider view night camera. The third one uses a low light illuminator (a search light than can only be seen if you are wearing special goggles) that can see in pitch black conditions, and also use the illuminator to guide aircraft or ground troops. Desert Hawk III can operate up to 15 kilometers from its operator and has much improved operator software. For some situations, Desert Hawk III is superior to Raven, and might find most of its sales with police departments or special operations troops.

Meanwhile, the Raven is less expensive (at $35,000 each) and can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. The Raven is also battery powered (and silent), and carries a color day vidcam, or a two color infrared night camera. Both cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a laptop computer. The Raven can go as fast as 90 kilometers an hour, but usually cruises at between 40 and 50. It can also go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller, and usually flies a preprogrammed route, using GPS for navigation. The Raven is made of Kevlar, the same material used in helmets and protective vests. On average, Raven can survive about 200 landings before it breaks something. While some Ravens have been shot down, the most common cause of loss is losing the communications link (as the aircraft flies out of range) or a software/hardware failure on the aircraft. The flight control software has a “failsafe” mode, so that when the radio link between aircraft and operator is lost, the aircraft will immediately head for home (where it was launched from).

The Raven B (RQ-11A), introduced three years ago, weighs a little more (4.3 pounds), but has much better  sensors, and the option of carrying a laser designator. Raven B flight performance is better as well. The marines, who had much success with Dragon Eye I UAV, switched to the Raven B because it’s the same, but better.

The big advantage with Raven is that it’s simple, reliable, and it works. A complete system (controller, spare parts and three UAVs) costs $240,000. The UAV can be quickly taken apart and put into a backpack. It takes off by having the operator start the motor, and then throwing it. This can be done from a moving vehicle, and the Raven is a popular recon tool for convoys. It lands by coming in low and then turning the motor off. Special Forces troops like to use it at night, because the enemy can’t see it, and often can’t hear it as well.

The controller allows the operator to capture video, or still pictures, and transmit them to other units or a headquarters. The operator often does this while the Raven is flying a pre-programmed pattern (using GPS). The operator can have the UAV stop and circle, in effect keeping the camera on the same piece of ground below. The operator can also fly the Raven, which is often used when pursuing hostile gunmen.

Over 5,000 Ravens have been built so far and this UAV dominates the micro-UAV market.





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