Warplanes: Smaller Is Sometimes Better


October 27, 2007: Despite the huge success of the 4.2 pound U.S. Raven UAV (nearly 4,000 in service), there is still a demand for even smaller UAVs. After over two years of testing and further development, the U.S. Marine Corps are sending the one pound Wasp III Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Wasp III (now also known as BATMAV) is a flat, rectangular "flying wing" (29 inch wingspan), that can stay in the air for about 45 minutes (PHOTO). Once the battery powered propeller is spinning, the operator throws Wasp into the air, and off it goes, usually at a 100 foot altitude. You land it by pressing the autoland button, after you have entered GPS coordinates of where you want it to return to. The propeller often breaks off when it lands, but the Wasp was designed for that, and you just snap on another propeller. The $5-10,000 MAV can survive about twenty such landings. The MAV is controlled via a hand held ($30,000) device that looks like a Gameboy, but has a seven inch color screen and controls laid out for easy use. BATMAV operators do require more training than most other UAVs, because the Wasp travels closer to the ground, and the system is designed to let one operator control several Wasps at once. The Wasp III is a larger version of the original seven ounce Wasp, which proved too lightweight and vulnerable to even light winds.

The Wasp carries a GPS, and microprocessor that keeps it stable in flight. It can also hover like a helicopter, a very useful capability for urban combat. The operator can also select a route via GPS coordinates, and order it to circle an area at any time. Two color video cameras are carried (one looking forward, and one looking to the rear), and then the Wasp is a hundred feet up, you can make out people below, and whether they are armed. The Wasp moves at a speed of 35-75 kilometers an hour (or about 9-19 meters a second). The controller can remain in touch with a Wasp that is up to five kilometers away, after which the operator losses control, and the video feed.

The controller, which is the same one used for larger micro-UAVs like the Raven and Pointer, makes training easier. The version going into action is waterproof and has a night (infrared) camera. The major shortcoming of the BATMAV is the difficulty of using it in windy or stormy conditions. This is a problem with all lightweight UAVs, and is particularly bad with the tiny BATMAV. The troops, however, are happy to have it. The system is rugged, lightweight and simple to use. When the air is fairly still, the BATMAV can go up and provide the troops with a major battlefield advantage.

The army Special Forces and Air For Special Operations troops are also using BATMAV, mainly because it is so small and light, which makes carrying it around a lot easier.


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