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Is There Anything The Clever Raven Can't Do
by James Dunnigan
December 2, 2010

U.S. Army troops have developed new tactics for their lightweight, hand launched Raven UAV. While the Raven can only stay airborne about an hour per sortie, 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.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy does not want to confront U.S. troops directly (this tends to get you killed). So there is 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 this means this often quickly leads to 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 army has thousands of RQ-11 Raven UAVs deployed. 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 Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below, and often used to scare the enemy away, or make him move to where he can be spotted.

The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11A), was introduced three 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 down there). The Raven can go as fast as 90 kilometers an hour, but usually cruises at between 40 and 50. 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, 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.

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 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 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.

Recent improvements include a "fail safe" mode, where a Raven that has lost contact with its operator, will immediately head for where it was launched from. There is now a location beacon, so that if one crashed over the hill, it can be quickly found. Another recent improvement is a digital data link, which makes it easier to encrypt the video feed, and makes it possible to operate 16 Ravens within range of each other, rather than only the current four. In development are two new sizes for the Raven, one a little larger (up to 5 kg) and one a little smaller. The larger one would have more range and endurance, plus more powerful sensors. The smaller one would have less, but be easier to carry, and harder for the enemy to spot.

In addition to the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps have adopted it. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is also a big user. Italy, Australia and Denmark, and several other nations, are also using Raven.

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