Warplanes: The Tiny Terror


November 5, 2014: One of the more revolutionary infantry developments of the 21st century was the appearance and widespread availability of small aircraft (micro-UAVs) that infantry could carry in a backpack, launch and operate themselves thereby obtaining real time video and still pictures. The star performer here was the two kilogram (4.4 pound) American Raven. But now there’s another breakthrough infantry UAV, out of Britain by way of Norway. This is the 16 gr (about half an ounce) PD-100 Black Hornet. Developed in Norway and noted by the British Army, which initially ordered 200 of them and got them to Afghanistan in 2013. The tiny UAVs were an instant success.

These miniature helicopters are tiny, being 10x2.5 cm (4x1 inch) aircraft that are battery powered, very quiet and can stay in the air for 20 minutes per sortie. The rotor diameter is 12 cm (4.8 inches). The UAV is made of hard plastic and one can be ready for action in less than a minute.  A complete set (two UAVs and the controller) weighs less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds). The operator can see (and capture) video and still photos on the hand held controller as the operator sends the PD-100 up to a kilometer away. The operator can zoom the camera. The PD-100 also carries GPS, a thermometer, compass and altitude sensor. Max speed is 10 meters a second (36 kilometers/22.5 miles an hour) and max altitude is about 500 meters. The body of the PD-100 is designed to handle winds well, making it quite stable for its size. It is the ultimate infantry UAV. The PD-100 is ideal in urban areas or forests. Thanks to the Internet, American troops soon found about it and how useful the nano-UAV was. So less than year after the British PD-100s arrived in Afghanistan the U.S. Army had an order in. Meanwhile the manufacturer had figured out how to get a night vision vidcam on the PD-100. So far over 3,000 PD-100s have been delivered, to military and civilian customers. The PD-100 costs about $200,000 each. It is not cheap, but it gets the job done.

All this came a century after aerial reconnaissance first revolutionized warfare. About a century after the first aircraft flew this new, tiny and radical new aerial technology took air recon to a new level. That level is low, a few hundred meters off the ground. It all began in the American military after September 11, 2001. This rapidly developed into a fleet of nearly 6,000 small (under ten kg/11 pounds) UAVs in use by American ground troops. Traditional U.S. military aviators, and the 10,000 manned aircraft they operate, were 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. 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 those of the enemy. 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.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy did not want to confront U.S. troops directly (this tends 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 learned how 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 was put in danger of being spotted. The enemy knew that usually led 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, was more stressful and dangerous if the U.S. troops had Ravens. And most of them do.

By 2102 the U.S. Army had over 5,000 RQ-11 Raven UAVs, which were popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. The army developed better training methods which enabled 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 is often used to scare the enemy away, or make him move to where he can be spotted.

The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11B), was introduced in 2007, 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. 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. A complete system (controller, spare parts, and three UAVs) costs $250,000. 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 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.

Raven, and nearly 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 lots 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.






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