While the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy began receiving RQ-21A Blackjack UAVs in early 2014 the marines had to work out some kinks in using theirs and only declared the RQ-21A ready for regular (battlefield) service in January 2016. This came after a lot of field testing and tweaking. Some RQ-21As (five UAVs, two control systems plus launch and maintenance gear) were sent to Afghanistan in mid-2014 for field tests and were soon operating in combat.
The RQ-21A is basically a larger ScanEagle which it is replacing. RQ-21A is a 55 kg (121 pound) UAV, which has a 4.9 meter (16 foot) wingspan and can fly as high as 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) at a cruise speed of 100 kilometers an hour. RQ-21A can stay in the air up to 24 hours and can carry a payload of 23 kg (50 pounds). It uses the same takeoff and landing equipment as the Scan Eagle. RQ-21A also uses many of the ScanEagle sensors, in addition to new ones that were too heavy for ScanEagle. The additional weight of the RQ-21 makes it more stable in bad weather or windy conditions.
The ScanEagle entered service in 2005 and weighs 19 kg (40 pounds). It has a 3.2 meter (ten foot) wingspan, and uses day and night video cameras. It uses a catapult for launch and can be landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a 16 meter (fifty foot) pole. There is also a smaller CLRE (Compact Launch and Recovery System) for ship use. On land Scan Eagle can also land on any flat, solid surface.
The Scan Eagle can stay in the air for up to 15 hours per flight and fly as high as 5 kilometers (16,000 feet). Scan Eagles cruising speed is 110 kilometers an hour and it can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the ground controller. Scan Eagle carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. Scan Eagle has been flying for over a decade now and has been in military service since 2005. The marines will also be using the RQ-21A from ships.