Traditional U.S. military aviators, and the 10,000 manned airplanes they operate, are somewhat disdainful of these tiny, unmanned, aircraft. But for the troops on the ground, they are a lifesaver and the key to many victories. This sort of thing has happened before. During World War I (1914-18), when aerial reconnaissance first became a major factor in military operations, it was quickly noted that regular flights over the enemy, despite the risk of getting shot down, provided invaluable information. It wasn't just what the human observer noted but photographs of what was down there. All this was rather sudden because reasonably cheap and reliable aircraft only began to appear a few years before World War I began. This was not surprising, as the first flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft only took place in 1903. The war spurred even more aircraft innovation. But then, and now, the principal job of aircraft was to be the eyes of the ground forces. The fighters were to protect friendly recon aircraft and attack the enemy ones. Bombers were consistently oversold, and the air force partisans could never accept the fact that bombing was an adjunct to reconnaissance, not the primary mission of the air forces. Just as the first recon aircraft a century ago changed the way armies fought, the micro-UAVs have changed the way small units of soldiers fight. A century ago the aerial observers reported to generals and their staffs. UAV video goes to platoon or company commanders or the leader of a small Special Forces team. The lightweight, hand launched Raven UAV can only stay airborne about an hour per sortie, but troops have found that this is enough time to do all sorts of useful work, even when there's no fighting going on. This is most of the time. The heavier Puma can stay up for 120 minutes.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy did not want to confront U.S. troops directly (this tended to get you killed). So there was an unceasing effort to set up ambushes, plant mines and roadside bombs, and fire rockets or mortars at American bases. All of these activities can be messed with by using Raven. U.S. troops know to think like the enemy and quickly figured out the best ambush positions or places to plant mines or fire rockets. By sending Ravens over these spots periodically the enemy is put in danger of being spotted. The enemy knows that usually leads to a prompt attack from American mortars or helicopter gunships. These mind games, of sneaking around trying to get a shot off at the Americans, is more stressful and dangerous if the U.S. troops have Ravens. And most of them do.
The U.S. Army has over 5,000 RQ-11 Raven UAVs in service. This two kilogram (4.4 pound) aircraft is popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. The army has developed better training methods, which enables operators to get more out of Raven. Combat troops use it for finding and tracking the enemy, while non-combat troops use it for security (guarding bases or convoys). In both cases, troops have come to use the Raven for more than just getting a look over the hill or around the corner. The distinctive noise of a Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below and is often used to scare the enemy away or make him move to where he can be more easily spotted.
The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11B), was introduced six years ago, a year after the original Raven entered service in large numbers. This UAV is inexpensive ($35,000 each) and can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. The Raven is battery powered (and largely silent unless flown close to the ground). It carries a color day vidcam or a two color infrared night camera. It can also carry a laser designator. Both cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a handheld controller, which uses a hood to shield the display from direct sunlight (thus allowing the operator to clearly see what is on the ground). The Raven can go as fast as 90 kilometers an hour but usually cruises at between 40 and 50 kilometers an hour. It can 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, a 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. Combat losses have been high, as nearly 20,000 have been built and most of those have been lost in training or the battlefield.
From the very beginning the Raven changed the way troops fight. With the bird's eye view of the battlefield, commanders can move their troops more quickly, confident that they won't be ambushed and often with certain knowledge of where the unseen enemy is. The big advantage with Raven is that it’s simple, reliable, and it just works. 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 either.
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.
Last year the U.S. Army began using the larger (5.9 kg) Puma AE UAVs. So far 325 RQ-20A systems have been ordered and most have been delivered. Adopting Puma is part of an army effort to find micro-UAVs that are more effective than current models and just as easy to use. The Puma, a 5.9 kg (13 pound) UAV with a 2.6 meter (8.5 feet) wingspan and a range of 15 kilometers from the operator, has proved to be the next big (or micro) thing the army was looking for. Combat commanders quickly realized how useful Puma is and wanted more, as quickly as possible. This is not surprising as SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has been using Puma since 2008.
The army wants to equip each infantry company with a Puma system. That would mean 18 Puma AE UAVs per brigade and nearly 400 for the entire army. These larger UAVs have been most useful in route clearance (scouting ahead to spot ambushes, roadside bombs, landslides, washouts, or whatever). The larger Puma is particularly useful in Afghanistan, which is windier than Iraq and thus more difficult for the tiny Raven to operate.
Top speed for Puma is 87 kilometers an hour and cruising speed is 37-50 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 3,800 meters (12,500 feet), and the UAV can stay in the air for 120 minutes at a time. Puma has a better vidcam (providing tilt, pan, and zoom) than the smaller Raven and that provides steadier and more detailed pictures. Because it is larger than Raven, and three times as heavy, Puma is much steadier in bad weather. Both Puma and Raven are battery powered.
Puma has been around for a decade but never got purchased in large quantities by anyone. The latest model uses a lot of proven tech from the Raven (both UAVs are made by the same company). Like the Raven, Puma is hand launched and can be quickly snapped together or apart. Another version, using a fuel cell, has been tested and was able to stay in the air for nine hours at a time. There is also a naval version that floats and is built to withstand exposure to salt water.
The army has bought over 10,000 of the 2 kg (4.4 pounds) Raven but it is mostly used for convoy and base security and less so by troops in the field. Each combat brigade is now supposed to have 35 mini-UAV systems (each with three UAVs, most of them Raven, but at least ten of these systems are to be Pumas). That means that each combat brigade now has its own air force of over a hundred reconnaissance aircraft.
Raven, and a thousand slightly larger UAVs, don't get much publicity but they have a larger impact on combat than the few hundred much larger (Shadow, Predator, Reaper) UAVs. These big, and often armed, UAVs carry out vital missions but comprise a tenth of the airtime that the micro-UAVs rack up. Moreover, these smaller UAVs have opened up a lot of other possibilities. There are already small, single use UAVs that are basically guided bombs. Even smaller UAVs can be used for spying, as well as battlefield recon. These little aircraft are having an enormous impact on warfare, rivaling what happened a century ago.
Because of anti-aircraft machine-guns and portable missile systems, the air force prefers to stay high (over 3,200 meters/10,000 feet) and let the army and their UAVs and helicopters take care of the lower altitudes. The army has taken on the challenge and succeeded.