Warplanes: Plays Well Together

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December 20,2008: Italy has certified the U.S. Raven UAV (RQ-11B) for use by military and civilian operators in Italian air space. There are many civilian uses of UAVs (police, security, traffic control, search and rescue), but, worldwide, aviation authorities are reluctant to allow UAVs into the air outside of military training areas.

In the U.S., FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) insists that only UAVs that can see as well as a human pilot can be used within the United States. No UAVs have this capability (as it requires mounting several more vidcams to reproduce the view from a cockpit, and more communications gear to transmit all that data). The FAA believes that the many aircraft (plus gliders and balloons) that are already in the air, without transponders, make these "enhanced" (with additional sensors) UAVs a necessity. The FAA has the final word on what is allowed to fly in the United States. For the moment, unenhanced UAVs can only fly in specific zones that have been cleared, via an FAA order, of all aircraft lacking a transponder. The FAA has cut the border patrol some slack, and allows Predator UAVs to patrol the Mexican and Canadian border. While the Predator weighs over a ton, the Raven weighs under five pounds. This is less than most birds involved in the hundreds of damaging collisions with aircraft each year in the United States. But what worries the FAA here is that 61 percent of bird collisions take place at very low altitude (under a hundred feet), and only 8 percent take place above 3,000 feet where most UAVs operate.

Italy appears to regard the Raven as another bird, and less likely to collide with an aircraft, as the UAV is in view of its operator when in the air. Currently, Ravens are in the air over 300,000 hours a year for combat missions (mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan). So far, over 9,000 Ravens have been delivered or are on order.   The Raven B (RQ-11A), introduced this year, weighs a little more (4.3 pounds), but has much better sensors, and the option of carrying a laser designator. Raven B flight performance is better as well.

This little machine, that looks like a toy, has revolutionized battlefield intelligence and made a dramatic change in the way infantry leaders run battles. The 4.2 pound Raven A is inexpensive ($35,000 each) and can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. The Raven is also battery powered (and silent), 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 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 the communications link failing (as the aircraft flies out of range, usually) or a software/hardware failure on the aircraft. The flight control software has a "failsafe" mode, so that when the radio link between aircraft and operator is lost, the aircraft will immediately head for home (where it was launched from). Raven B has a rescue beacon in the tail, that puts out a location signal. If a helicopter can be used, the downed Raven can be quickly retrieved and repaired.

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 as well.

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.

Larger UAVs (like the 350 pound U.S. Army Shadow 200, and Predator type aircraft) are being equipped with better anti-collision devices. Research indicates that UAVs equipped with these new systems will be less prone to collision than small commercial aircraft (which typically have only one pilot, who is often distracted while in the air.)

 


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