The U.S. Army's most popular aircraft is continuing to evolve. The aircraft in question is the Raven, which weighs less than five pounds, and is a UAV used mainly by combat troops. Infantry companies and platoons regularly use them to get a look at what's over the hill, or behind surrounding buildings. 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.
The latest improvements are 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 (6-10 pounds) 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.
The Raven is a very popular UAV, with over 4,000 produced so far. The U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps have adopted it. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is also a big user. In Iraq, Ravens have flown over 40,000 sorties so far. Italy, Australia and Denmark, and several other nations, are also using Raven.
The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11A), was introduced three years ago. The 4.3 pound UAV 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. It can also carry a laser designator. Both cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a hand held 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.
The marines, who had much success with Dragon Eye UAV, switched to the Raven B because its the same, but better. The air force was using the seven pound Desert Hawk, and switched for the same reason. British troops were also using Desert Hawk, but switched to Raven.
The Raven has 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 its 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 cant see it, and often cant 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.