The U.S. Army has been extremely successful with a new, four pound, reconnaissance aircraft. Ordered twenty months ago, and entering service in late 2003, the Raven (RQ-11A) first went to Afghanistan, where infantry and Special Forces troops found the aircraft very useful and soon wanted more of these micro UAVs (ultralight unmanned aerial vehicles). The feedback was very enthusiastic, and the army ordered more, and sent them to Iraq as well. At 4.2 pounds, and costing $25,000 each, the Raven can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. It is battery powered, 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 between 40 and 50. It can go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller on the ground, and usually flies a preprogrammed route, using GPS for navigation. Each Raven unit consists of three UAVs and one ground control station. Its launched by turning on the motor, and throwing it into the air. It lands by coming back to ground at a designated GPS location (and bouncing around a bit.) 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.
The Raven is basically a scaled down version of an earlier, nine pound UAV, the Pointer (FQM-151). This one was also popular with the Special Forces. But they wanted something even smaller and lighter, as they often had to travel very light. The size of the micro UAVs has largely been dictated by the weight of available video cameras. In the last few years, even lighter (under half a pound) vidcams have been developed, and that made it possible to use even smaller UAVs. While the larger Pointer could stay in the air for two hours, its 8.9 foot wingspan, and six foot length, made it more difficult to haul around (even though it was broken down for travel). The Raven has a wingspan of 4.3 feet and is 3.6 feet long.
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. Troops have taken to putting a label on each aircraft, saying, in the local language, that if the aircraft is returned to the nearest American military unit, there will be a reward. Several lost Ravens have been recovered this way.
The army has over 200 Ravens in use, and the manufacturer is turning them out as fast as they can. The Special Forces are one of the most enthusiastic users, as the battery powered Raven is silent, and so small that most people on the ground dont notice it. At night, its almost impossible to spot. The army wants every combat battalion, and eventually every company to have a Raven system. Commanders find the real time video of the area they are operating in to be invaluable when theres a battle going on, and equally useful when preparing for combat.