Warplanes: November 3, 2003


American Special Forces have their own private air force of sixty reconnaissance aircraft. But the aircraft in question are ultra light (nine pounds) UAVs that are launched by throwing them. The propeller driven FQM-151 Pointer UAV can stay in the air for up to two hours and carries a two pound payload. This is enough to equip the Pointer with a daylight videocam, or infrared (heat imaging) camera for night work. The Pointer can be used as much as eight kilometers from where it is launched, can fly as high as 3,000 feet and has a max speed of 77 kilometers an hour and a stall speed of 29 kilometers an hour. Normally, it flies at 200-500 feet. You land it by bringing it in low and slow until you cut the power and it glides to the ground. Special Forces like it because a Pointer kit consists of two aircraft, extra 2.2 pound batteries and video units, plus the control unit. The aircraft itself is made of rugged Kevlar components. The UAV is carried broken down, and snaps together for use. The wingspan is 8.9 feet, with a length of six feet. When broken down, the aircraft fits into a 35x18x12 inch container. The ground control unit fits into a 28x12x12 inch container. Typical weight for two Pointers and ground control gear is two fifty pound backpacks. It takes less than five minutes to get the system out of the carrying case and into the air. Each aircraft costs $30,000, the ground control unit costs $50,000. The Pointer is normally flown within view of the operator. The pointer cannot operate in winds greater than 25-30 kilometers an hour, or in heavy rain or snow. Heavy fog is bad as well, for the operator cannot see the aircraft. The Pointer does have GPS, and can fly pre-programmed routes, but it's safer if the operator can observe this. The onboard camera transmits what it sees to a display for the pilot on the ground, and another display for an observer who can record some or all of the video, and add spoken comments. 

The Pointer has been use by the army and Marine Corps since 1988 and was later adopted by the Special Forces. Newer, lighter UAVs are being introduced, but the Special Forces likes the Pointer because it's a mature technology and gets the job done reliably. Because of the quiet electric motor on the Pointer, it has proved very useful with Special Forces A Teams in Afghanistan, for tracking down Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. The Special Forces are also using Pointer in Iraq. The Pointer is particularly popular for tracking enemy troops at night, for at night you can't see it, but it can see you.


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