November 11, 2013:
Since it was first introduced in 2006, the American military has been finding new uses for its RQ-11 Raven UAV. This 2 kilogram (4.4 pound) aircraft is popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. U.S. Army infantry were the original users but the word spread and soon other combat and non-combat troops were clamoring for Raven. Now the marines and several foreign countries use Raven as well. Many similar micro-UAVs have appeared on the market.
Combat troops use these small, hand launched aircraft for finding and tracking the enemy. This includes mechanized units, which usually have one of their support troops (who have armored personnel carriers) to operate the Raven. The UAV operator needs to be outside the vehicle for the wireless communications to work with the UAV. But the mech units learned to halt and launch a Raven if they were approaching a suspicious area. The Raven can stay up for an hour and check out what is ahead before the vehicles resume moving. The vehicle with the Raven operator then has to halt so they can pick up the landed Raven. It takes a few minutes to change the battery pack and launch it again. With enough battery packs and a recharger in the vehicle, the armored column can keep a Raven in the air for hours. This is not done all the time but it gives the armor commanders another tool in their tool box.
Non-combat troops use Raven for security as well as including guarding bases or convoys. It was the widespread use to guard convoys that created opportunities to work out details on how this would work for troops in moving vehicles and the mechanized troops used this experience for their own use. 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 Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below and often used to scare the enemy away, or make him move to where he can be spotted.
The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11A), was introduced in 2007. This UAV is inexpensive ($35,000 each) and can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. 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. Both 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 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.
UAVs aren’t the only way tank crews can get a better idea of what is around them. About the same time Raven showed up U.S. tanks began receiving additional vidcams for the outside of their vehicles. This was part of the TUSK (Tank Urban Survival Kit). The kit is a collection of additional features for M1 tanks, which make them more effective when fighting in urban areas. Some tank crews had installed these small vidcams on their own, but TUSK quickly recognized that these cheap and reliable devices were very useful in combat. Flat screen displays inside the tank enabled crew to quickly scan the outside. The vidcams soon came with night-vision versions as well. There is also a telephone added to the side of the tank, so that infantry can more easily communicate with the crew when the crew are all inside the tank. This is all in the name of “situational awareness” and giving the vehicle crews a better sense of where they are and who was there with them. Until then tanks had been “blind” when “buttoned up” (all the hatches shut and everyone inside). This made tanks vulnerable to infantry sneaking up to plant explosives and do all manner of fatal mischief. That is more difficult with the small vidcams and UAVs.