Intelligence: January 23, 2004


Although it's been around since 1988, the U.S. Army's Pointer mini-UAV (FQM-151) has become enormously popular in Afghanistan and Iraq. What really made Pointer a powerful tool for combat troops was the introduction, in 2000, of a seven ounce infrared (night vision) camera. Before that, such cameras were too heavy for Pointer (which has a max payload of two pounds.) But the new lightweight camera worked and turned Pointer into a round the clock UAV. This was critical, for the American armed forces prefer to operate at night, where their superior night vision devices give them a big advantage. The Pointer with night vision became available to the troops in early 2001. 

New batteries recently became available for Pointer, making it possible to fly the Pointer at night for up to two hours per flight. The seven ounce infrared (night vision) camera draws more power from the aircraft battery, which also has to drive the 300 watt propeller engine, thus making more powerful batteries a very useful feature. Units that have seen Pointer in action have been clamoring to get their own. The nine pound UAV is launched by just throwing it. The Pointer can be used as much as eight kilometers from where it is launched, usually operates at 100-300 feet and has a max speed of 77 kilometers, with a stall speed of 29 kilometers an hour. It can fly as high as 3,000 feet. You land it by bringing it in low and slow until you cut the power and it glides to the ground. The aircraft itself is made of rugged, lightweight, composite material. The Pointer is carried broken down into six pieces, and snaps together for use. The wingspan is 8.9 feet, with a length of six feet. When broken down, the aircraft fits into a 35x18x12 inch container. The ground control unit fits into a 28x12x12 inch container. 

Typical weight for two Pointers and ground control gear is two fifty pound backpacks. It takes less than five minutes to get the system out of the carrying case and into the air. Each aircraft costs $30,000, the ground control unit costs $50,000. The Pointer is normally flown within view of the operator. The pointer cannot operate in winds greater than 25-30 kilometers an hour, or in heavy rain or snow. Heavy fog is bad as well, for the operator cannot see the aircraft. The Pointer does have GPS, and can fly pre-programmed routes, but it's safer if the operator can observe where the UAV is. The onboard camera transmits what it sees to a display for the pilot on the ground, and another display for an observer who can record some or all of the video, and add spoken comments. 

Because of the electric motor, the Pointer is very quiet. At night, it's almost impossible to know it's there. Troops have found that Pointer is the perfect tool for checking on the enemy situation just before an operation. With Pointer, you see what the enemy is doing in the village, or on the other side of the hill, and the bad guys don't know they are being watched. There are over a hundred Pointer UAVs in action, and many more on order. Even the U.S. Air Force has bought them, for air base security in Iraq. Foreign nations, including France, have also purchased Pointer, as have non-military organizations (police, border patrol and industrial security).


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