Attrition: Instant Gratification

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February 24, 2018: American ground forces (soldiers and marines) are moving towards “3D Print on Demand” UAVs to complement more expensive ($30,000 each) UAVs like the Raven. The problem with Raven is cost and availability. Since 2013 UAVs like the Raven have been considered too expensive for regular training. That means when troops first use them they don’t get most out of UAVs. There is was still Raven training, but was infrequent and when a Raven was lost there was a lot of paperwork involved because a $30,000 item had been lost or badly damaged. There is computer based Raven flight simulator (Vampire) that uses the Raven controller and supplies realistic flight characteristics and video of what is seen by the Raven. While Vanpire is good with teach operators basic skills and procedures, real world training is always more useful and if often too expensive for peacetime budgets to handle.

There were two possible solutions and both may be employed. One is cheap (under $1,000 each) consumer grade UAVs, especially camera equipped quad-copters. Another solution is 3D printed UAVs that also cost about $1,000 but use commercial components (batteries, electric motors, cameras and wireless comms). The airframe is 3D printed on demand at battalion and brigade level. The army has been using 3-D printing since 2003 (for simple equipment components that break and can take a long time to order and deliver). The troops would still have Raven, with its longer duration, better sensors and encrypted comms. But for most combat zone needs the 3D UAVs built back at battalion or brigade headquarters as needed would get the job done. These weigh less than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) and have limited endurance (20 minutes) and range (about three kilometers) but for most combat situations that is sufficient. A smart phone or tablet can be used as a controller. The 3D printers required are small and use plastic material that can also be used to create replacement parts on-demand for damaged UAVs as well as a long list of parts for other equipment in the battalion. Thus the 3D Printers would not be added to battalion or brigade equipment just for making UAVs but for supplying a long list of plastic replacement parts instantly.

The need for a cheaper alternative to Raven became more obvious after 2012 with the departure of troops from Iran and combat operations winding down in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army cut back on a lot of purchases, including its popular RQ-11B Raven micro-UAV. In the previous decade the U.S. has bought most of the 19,000 Ravens produced. But after 2012 those purchases faded to zero. In 2012 the army bought 1,134. That fell to 234 in 2013 and zero in 2014. The reason why the army bought so many Ravens was because this tiny (two kg/3.3 pound) aircraft rapidly wears out in combat. The Raven is made of Kevlar, the same material used in helmets and protective vests, but there are many ways for one to be lost in combat. On paper a Raven can survive about 200 landings before it can no longer be used. That’s in peacetime operations. In a combat zone few Ravens made it past fifty or so landings. While some Ravens have been shot down, the most common cause of loss is a problem with the communications link (as the aircraft flies out of range or behind something that interrupts the signal) or a software/hardware failure on the aircraft. Combat losses have been high, as nearly 20,000 have been built and most of those have been lost on the battlefield.

With much less combat expected after 2012s, the army is cut orders for new Ravens and, in effect, lived off existing stocks (over 5,000 Ravens) and resuming purchases only if a lot of troops are sent into combat. Raven, in effect, is being treated like ammunition, with not much needed in peacetime than in wartime. After 2012 there were purchases of new sensors and other accessories for Raven. Production of Raven continued, but mostly for over two dozen (and growing) export customers.

Despite the high loss rate, the Raven is popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. In part this is because the army has developed better training methods, which enables operators to get more out of Raven more quickly. Combat troops use it for finding and tracking the enemy, while non-combat troops use it for security (guarding bases or convoys). In both cases troops have come to use the Raven for more than just getting a look over the hill or around the corner. The distinctive noise of a Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below and is often used to scare the enemy away or make him move to where he can be more easily spotted.

The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11B), was introduced in 2007, a year after the original Raven entered service in large numbers. This UAV is relatively inexpensive ($30,000 each) for what it provides. The Raven is battery powered (and largely silent unless flown close to the ground). It carries a color day vidcam or a two color infrared night camera. It can also carry a laser designator and a new gimbaled camera is also available. The cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a handheld controller, which uses a hood to shield the display from direct sunlight (thus allowing the operator to clearly see what is on the ground). The Raven can go as fast as 95 kilometers an hour but usually cruises at between 40 and 50 kilometers an hour. It can go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller and usually flies a pre-programmed route, using GPS for navigation.

From the very beginning the Raven 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 it’s simple, reliable, and it just works. 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 either.

By 2012 the army was equipping each combat brigade with 35 mini-UAV systems (each with three UAVs, most of them Raven but at least ten of these systems are the larger Pumas). That means that each combat brigade now had its own air force of over a hundred reconnaissance aircraft.

In 2012 the U.S. Army began using the larger (5.9 kg) Puma AE UAVs. Adopting Puma is part of an army effort to find micro-UAVs that are more effective than current models and just as easy to use. The Puma, a 5.9 kg (13 pound) UAV with a 2.6 meter (8.5 feet) wingspan and a range of 15 kilometers from the operator proved to be the next big (or micro) thing the army was looking for. Combat commanders quickly realized how useful Puma is and wanted more, as quickly as possible. This was not surprising as SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has been using Puma since 2008.

The army wants to equip each infantry company with a Puma system. That would mean 18 Puma AE UAVs per brigade and nearly 400 for the entire army. These larger UAVs have been most useful in route clearance (scouting ahead to spot ambushes, roadside bombs, landslides, washouts, or whatever). The larger Puma is particularly useful in Afghanistan, which is windier than Iraq and thus more difficult for the tiny Raven to operate.

Top speed for Puma is 87 kilometers an hour and cruising speed is 37-50 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 3,800 meters (12,500 feet). Puma has a better vidcam (providing tilt, pan, and zoom) than the smaller Raven and that provides steadier and more detailed pictures. Because it is larger than Raven, and three times as heavy, Puma is much steadier in bad weather. Both Puma and Raven are battery powered.

Puma has been around for a decade but never got purchased in large quantities by anyone. The 2012 model used a lot of proven tech from the Raven (both UAVs are made by the same company). Like the Raven, Puma is hand launched and can be quickly snapped together or apart. Another version, using a fuel cell, has been tested and was able to stay in the air for nine hours at a time. There is also a naval version that floats and is built to withstand exposure to salt water.

In 2012 the army had nearly 7,000 UAVs. Over 6,000 are micro-UAVs like the Raven and Puma. These tiny (under six kg/13.2 pound) reconnaissance aircraft have become very popular with the troops, anyone of which can become an operator after a few hours of training. These tiny UAVs are a radical new military aircraft technology that took air recon to a new level. That level is low, a few hundred meters off the ground. These tiny aircraft changed how the troops operate and greatly reduced army dependence on the air force (or army aviation) for air reconnaissance. The lightweight, hand launched Raven UAV can only stay airborne about an hour per sortie, but troops have found that this is enough time to do all sorts of useful work, even when there's no fighting going on. This is most of the time. The heavier Puma can stay up for 120 minutes.

 


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