The U.S. Army's need for training of UAV operators is increasing, to the point where troops in Iraq and Afghanistan can now use training facilities in Europe. This despite the fact that Europe has more problems with weather (a third fewer clear days than in U.S. training areas.) Currently, training teams from American units based in Europe also fly to combat zones to help train operators. But these travelling trainers don't have all the facilities available back home. The trainers also show commanders how to get the most out of the UAVs, particularly Raven (which will usually be supporting platoon and company commanders.) The army is also sending more UAV simulators overseas, to help train new operators, and help existing ones to maintain and improve their skills.
The army has thousands of RQ-11 Raven UAVs deployed. This two kilogram (4.4 pound) aircraft is popular with combat and non combat troops, and the army has developed better training methods, which enables operators to get more out of Raven. Combat troops use it for finding and tracking the enemy, while non-combat troops use it for security (guarding bases or convoys).
Recent improvements include a "fail safe" mode, where a Raven that has lost contact with its operator, will immediately head for where it was launched from. There is now a location beacon, so that if one crashed over the hill, it can be quickly found. Another recent improvement is a digital data link, which makes it easier to encrypt the video feed, and makes it possible to operate 16 Ravens within range of each other, rather than only the current four. In development are two new sizes for the Raven, one a little larger (6-10 pounds) and one a little smaller. The larger one would have more range and endurance, plus more powerful sensors. The smaller one would have less, but be easier to carry, and harder for the enemy to spot.
The Raven is a very popular UAV, with over 4,000 produced so far. The U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps have adopted it. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is also a big user. In Iraq, Ravens have flown over 40,000 sorties so far. Italy, Australia and Denmark, and several other nations, are also using Raven.
The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11A), was introduced three years ago. The two kilogram UAV is inexpensive ($35,000 each) and can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. The Raven is battery powered (and silent), and 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 hand held 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.
The Raven has 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 its simple, reliable, and it works. A complete system (controller, spare parts and three UAVs) costs $240,000. 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 cant see it, and often cant hear it as well.
The controller allows the operator to capture video, or still pictures, and transmit them to other units or a headquarters. The operator often does this while the Raven is flying a pre-programmed pattern (using GPS). The operator can have the UAV stop and circle, in effect keeping the camera on the same piece of ground below. The operator can also fly the Raven, which is often used when pursuing hostile gunmen.
Raven has been in use since 2006, and in that time the army learned that effectiveness of the tiny UAV depended a lot on how well trained the operators were, and how familiar the commanders were with what the Raven could do. Thus the current push to increase training for operators and commanders. The thousands of Raven operators have come up with many clever techniques for using the UAV, and just making all this knowledge available to new operators has required a major change in the training syllabus. There has been a similar evolution in the training of operators for larger UAVs (like Shadow 200 and Predator.)