April 27, 2012: The U.S. Army has ordered another 20 RQ-20A Puma AE UAVs. Over a hundred RQ-20As have been ordered so far this year and about a thousand have been manufactured in the past four years, but that has been accelerating now that the army has adopted Puma in a big way.
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, has proved to be the next big (or micro) thing the army was looking for. The orders this year have largely been in response to combat commanders realizing how useful Puma is and wanting more, as quickly as possible. This is not surprising as SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has already ordered over a hundred systems (each with three UAVs and two controllers) since 2008.
The army wants to equip each infantry company with a Puma system. That would mean 18 Puma AE UAVs per brigade. 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), and the UAV can stay in the air for 120 minutes at a time. 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. The Raven only stays in the air for 80 minutes. Both Puma and Raven are battery powered.
Puma has been around for a decade but never got purchased in large quantities by anyone. The latest model uses 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 which is built to withstand exposure to salt water.
The army has bought over 5,000 of the 2 kg (4.4 pounds) Raven, but it is mostly used for convoy and base security and less so by troops in the field. Each combat brigade is now supposed to have 35 mini-UAV systems (each with three UAVs, most of them Raven, but at least ten systems Pumas). That means that each combat brigade now has its own air force of over a hundred reconnaissance aircraft.