Ravens, Mini-UAVs Winning Gold in Afghanistan’s “Commando Olympics”
In 2005 the RQ-11 Raven mini-UAV was enjoying positive field reports from Iraq. In November 2005, StrategyPage reported that the RQ-11 Raven was also turning heads in what it calls “the commando Olympics” of Afghanistan:
“In addition to all the cooperation, there’s also a lot comparing notes. One thing everyone has noted is the large number of useful gadgets American Special Forces troops have. The most envied item is the American Raven UAV.”
It’s an apt phrase. This Spotlight article looks at Special Forces related mini-UAV buys from a number of countries, spurred by requests from special operations troops in theater…
RQ-11: Drawing Raves
The Raven is a 4.2-pound, backpackable, hand-launched sensor platform that provides day and night, real-time video imagery for “over the hill” and “around the corner” reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. Each Raven system typically consists of 3 aircraft, a ground control station, system spares, and related services.
As a measure of its success, The 3,000th RQ-11A Raven vehicle rolled of the production line back in March 2006. U.S. armed forces use Ravens extensively for missions such as base security, route reconnaissance, mission planning and force protection. According to the U.S. Army, Ravens were flown for approximately 150,000 combat hours in 2007.
The same reasons behind the Raven’s Iraqi success also apply in CENTCOM’s first theater of war:
- Useful at the battalion level, but so simple to operate that one of the best pilots in the Iraqi theater was a cook.
- Ideal for quick peeks to see what’s on the other side of obstructed terrain – like a city block in Iraq, or Afghanistan’s hills and mountains.
- Switch-in IR cameras that some called better than an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter’s (presumably the one in TADS/PVNS, not the updated Arrowhead).
- Small and unobtrusive (wingspan just over 4 feet, weight just over 4 pounds), with low noise signature relative to larger UAVs.
- So small, in fact, that it can easily be carried by Special Forces scouts and squads.
- No letters to write if the aircraft goes down.
While some Ravens have been shot down, StrategyPage says the most common cause of loss is losing the communications link or a software/hardware failure on the aircraft. It also reports that troops in Afghanistan have taken to putting a translated label on each Raven, noting that a reward will be given to anyone who returns them to the Americans. Several lost Ravens have actually been recovered this way.
The Commando Olympics: Other Teams are Competing
Both American UAVs and American UAV doctrine are attracting interest from other Western Special Forces – and other branches of the US military. Nevertheless, American UAVs are not the only winners. Elbit’s Skylark, for instance, has emerged as a strong alternative.
The Skylark system include 3 Air Vehicles, a Ground Control Station and the day and night payloads. The system can be carried in two back packs and operated in mission by two soldiers, but additional launch options are available – including by air from various manned or unmanned platforms, or ground launch by rail. The UAV is controlled through full, downsized or man-portable tactical miniature ground-control stations which draw from the Hermes UAV family heritage, and offers real time continuous video and telemetry data transmission via a new Spectralink-developed data link. It has been improved over the years.
Aug 3/08: Australia places its 3rd Skylark UAV order, valued at “several million dollars.” Elbit Systems release [PDF].
The British SAS purchased a larger hand-launched UAV called BUSTER (backpack unmanned surveillance targeting and enhanced reconnaissance) in 2005, which is bigger than the RQ-11 Raven but has greater endurance, altitude, and range. While StrategyPage claims that the BUSTER is a derivative of the Raven’s AeroVironment FQM-151 Pointer predecessor, DID’s research reveals a very different vehicle with a biplane-like double wing, made by a different company who seems to have the applicable British contract.
August 1/08: Rotorhub Magazine runs “REPORT FROM IRAQ: Royal Artillery’s mini and tactical UAVs tasked to counter indirect fire at Basra, Iraq.” The UAVs are Desert Hawk mini-UAVs and mid-size Hermes 450 aircraft, which indicates that some of the Desert Hawk’s technical issues with Iraqi mobile phone frequencies have been resolved. The same tactics and procedures would be used in Afghanistan, where surprise mortar and rocket attacks are also a feature of combat.
Sept 27/06 A UK MoD release confirms that they’re using RQ-11 Ravens in Iraq via a partnership with the US Army.
June 9/06: The British are also incorporating Desert Hawk mini-UAVs in Afghanistan.
Back in 2005, Canadian Forces director of operational requirements for unmanned aerial vehicles, Maj. Keith Laughton, stated that they will be buying portable UAVs that are similar to the Raven, and that they will be deployed in Afghanistan by August 2006. “It has been identified as an operational requirement for Op Archer Roto 2 in August.” At the time, no specific UAV had been chosen to fulfill this role, though Canada has evaluated the Advanced Ceramics Research Silver Fox mini-UAV (see a more visual report via the CASR think tank).
Aug 3/10: Prioria Robotics in Gainesvilla, FL receives a USD$ 2.8 million contract from Public Works and Government Services Canada for 5 Maveric Mini-UAV systems, to be used in aid of Operation Athena in Afghanistan. Prioria picked ING Engineering of Ottawa, Canada, to provide DND with support services.
Maveric was introduced in 2008, and is built around Prioria’s Merlin embedded computing system. Their goal is to enable on-board image processing and vision-based control, reducing reliance on ground station communication. Internal GPS also improves autonomy, and the Maveric is said to be capable of fully autonomous operation from launch to landing, if necessary. A patented bendable wing design lets the wings bend back for storage, avoiding assembly and disassembly in the field. The Maveric can mount a MicroUAV BTC-40 360-degree gimbal EO camera, and comes with image stabilization. A system includes 3 Maveric UAVs, plus a ground control station (GCS). A side-look EO camera is standard, while the gimbal mount and Merlin onboard processing are options, as is an infrared camera, or target tracking capability added to the GCS. Prioria release [PDF].
Nov 19/06: Israel’s Globes business daily relays a Flight International report re: Canadian experiences with the Skylark I in Afghanistan:
“The British weekly quotes a technical director in the Canadian Army interim small UAV programme, Captain Rob Sanders as saying, “Most of them aren’t flying in Afghanistan. For some reason, in some parts of the country it will fly great, or today it will fly. The same one, at a separate time tonight, won’t fly. So they have grounded them all trying to figure out what is going on. We are sending a couple of specialists over there to sort that out.”
Despite requests, Elbit declines to provide updates concerning the resolution of this problem.
Oct 3/06: SpaceWar.com reports that a Thales Canada will provide a UAV based on Elbit’s Skylark as Canada’s long-term mini-UAV choice. Other competitors reportedly included IAI’s I-View 50 with its unique parafoil landing system, and Boeing’s larger ScanEagle UAV with its dual land/maritime role.
Canada joined Australia in choosing Elbit’s Skylark. Thales Canada will act as the prime contractor.
Nov 25/05: Canada commits C$ 10 million for 10 mini-UAV systems, as part of the $200 million set of emergency purchases for Operation Archer.
April 12/12: The Dutch MvD announces that it is lending Denmark 2 RQ-11 Raven systems (6 UAVs) for 6 months, to be used for training in Denmark. Apparently, all of the Danes’ working units are in Afghanistan, and spare parts have been an issue.
Sept 11/07: Aerovironment announced that the Danish Army Operational Command had examined competing offerings, then placed a $2.4 million order to supply with 12 RQ-11B Raven-B small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). The RQ-11B is slightly larger than the original Raven; a Raven-B system typically consists of three aircraft, a hand-held ground control station, a remote viewing terminal, systems spares, and related services, which in this case include logistics support and training services.
True to form, this is a “commando Olympics” purchase:
“Three of the Raven-B systems are planned for delivery to the Jaegerkorpset (Army Special Forces), with the remainder destined for troop testing by deployed units at the Danish Army’s Artillery Training Center.”
April 8/11: EADS Cassidian announces a follow-on order for an unspecified number of additional DRAC mini-UAV systems. That’s interesting, in light of the Oct 5/10 entry.
A DRAC system consists of 2 backpack-carried UAVs equipped with payloads, a compact 2-unit ground station and an automatic tracking antenna for autonomous missions. DRAC is based on SurveyCopeter’s TRACKER system, and is partnership between EADS Cassidian (marketing, ground station, high-speed secure data link) and SurveyCopter (UAV system and cameras). EADS says that DRAC UAVs have been in operational service with French Army units in Afghanistan since October 2010.
Oct 5/10: In testimony before the French National Assembly’s defense committee, minister Herve Morin says that the DRAC mini-UAVs haven’t worked out:
“Dans le domaine des drones, la France a pris du retard, manquant cette évolution technologique… Nous avons néanmoins développé un système de drones intérimaires, avec des réussites variées ; je rappelle que, cet été, nous avons été sur le point de renvoyer la totalité des DRAC car ils ne fonctionnaient pas.
The statement isn’t completely clear, as it states they were about to return the DRAC mini-UAVs in summer 2010, because the UAVs weren’t working. But doesn’t say if they followed through on that, or what the resolution was, if any.
March 8/10: France’s DGA delivers Skylark I and Wasp-III mini-UAVs to French Special Forces, less than 3 months after contracts were signed for Elbit Systems’ Skylark (Oct 18/09) and Aerovironment’s Wasp-III (Nov 4/09), following verification and testing.
The DGA says that the Skylark delivery completes a set, following earlier DGA deliveries in 2008 and 2009. The Wasp-IIIs, on the other hand, will be entering an operational evaluation phase to assess their future value. DGA [in French].
July 10/08: EADS announces an order for 35 DRAC mini-UAV systems from the French DGA procurement agency, bringing France’s total to 60. DRAC operator training was completed at the end of June 2008. The EADS release adds that:
“Numerous foreign customers have already expressed a strong interest in this system and a number of export systems have been delivered recently.”
March 24/08: Elbit Systems Ltd. announces [PDF format] that it has won “a tender involving 10 of the leading UAV manufacturers worldwide,” and will supply Skylark I UAV systems to France’s Special Forces. This contract marks Elbit Systems’ first UAV contract with France.
June 3/11: Germany will deploy AirRobot “quadcopter” mini UAVs to Afghanistan, after a series of successful trials. Mikado’s UAV is short-range even by the class’ standards, being limited to a range of 1 km, and just 20 minutes of flight. On the other hand, it weighs less than 1 kg, and is seen as very stable and easy to use. The Germans reportedly have just 6 of them. Armed Forces International | AR-100B AirRobot.
May 30/08: AeroVironment, Inc. announces that The Netherlands Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO), had awarded a $7.7 million contract for RQ-11B Raven systems as well as training, logistics support, and airworthiness certification. The release quotes Frans Klein, Head Section Unmanned Aircrafts for The Netherlands Defense Materiel Organisation:
“We performed a thorough competitive selection process and the Raven came out as a clear winner… Decisive elements in the selection were hand-launchability, reliability, ease of use, robustness, and proven, in-theatre operational performance.”
In April 2006, the Dutch bought 10 Aladin UAVs and 5 ground stations for their Uruzgan mission in Afghanistan; Dutch troops received a crash course from the German army, who have used the system in Northern Afghanistan. The very small size of this order strongly suggests special forces deployment.
Poland supplemented its Orbiter UAVs with Boeing’s catapult-launched ScanEagle in 2010. The ScanEagle is one class above a mini-UAV. It also operates Aeronautics DS’ Aerostar as its tactical UAV, and (loaned) MQ-1 Predators as its top-level UAV.
July 27/07: Following an initial sale of Orbiter mini UAVs to the Polish Special Forces in 2006:
“…the customer’s high satisfaction with the Orbiter’s operational performance in Afghanistan over the past year has led to a sharp increase in Aeronautics’ activities in Poland (now a member of NATO), and to the decision by the Polish Ministry of Defense to equip its other land forces with a large number of similar systems.”
The world-wide tender for the $3 million contract reportedly included 11 other companies, of which 6 made it to the final stage of the tender. Aeronautics Defense Systems Ltd. will be the sole supplier of 6 Orbiter systems, each of which includes 3 mini air vehicles, day and night camera payloads, portable Ground Control Stations and data links for command and video transmission. Orbiter has a fully automatic flight control system that includes automatic launch and recovery. Aeronautics release.
Jan 14/08: On Jan 14/07, El Pais reported that The Spanish Ministry of Defence has given the go-ahead to an urgent purchase of 9 RQ-11B Raven mini-UAV systems (27 UAVs) to strengthen the protection of Spain’s 742 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and 1,100 in Lebanon. The contract amounts to EUR 3.1 million and has been awarded to the Spanish firm Aerlyper as an urgent acquisition “negociado sin publicidad.”
To date, El Pais reports that the RQ-11′s manufacturer AeroVironment have sold more than 3,000 units. Thanks to DID reader Pedro Lucio for the pointer and translation assistance.
This purchase is separate from, but linked to, Spain’s purchase of IAI/UTE Searcher MkII-J tactical UAVs. The Searcher UAVs will be used for for battalion-level reconnaissance in depth, as opposed to the Raven’s much shorter range and duration that gives it only squad/company-level utility. Unfortunately, the scheduled September 2007 delivery from the Spanish UTE consortium did not materialize until late December 2007, and the system will not be operational for several months. The Ravens, which are being produced in quantity, may well prove to be an immediately available front-line stopgap.
July 1/08: US SOCOM issues a mini-UAV contract worth up to $200 million over 5 years – but it isn’t for the Raven. Read “Puma AE: An “All Environment” Mini-UAV” for more.
Feb 6/08: AveroVironment, Inc. in Simi Valley, CA received a $45.9 million firm-fixed-price and cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for the SOCOM Raven Systems (newer RQ-11B) and initial spares packages. Work will be performed in Simi Valley, CA and is expected to be complete by Jan 31/09. One bid was solicited on Jan. 30, 2008, and 1 bid was received by the U.S. Army Aviation & Missile Command in Huntsville, AL (W58RGZ-05-C-0338).
According to Aerovironment’s Feb 7/08 release, the option was submitted under the existing U.S. Army joint small UAS program of record for the RQ-11, which provides systems for the US Army and Marine Corps. The contract also allows for contract additions from US Special Operations Command and other U.S. military services.
Oct 15/07: The Air Force Association’s Oct 15/07 Daily Report says that:
“The [USAF's] 380th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron in Southwest Asia has a new asset: the 35-inch-long unmanned aerial vehicle called the Raven B. MSgt. Ruby Zarzyczny reports that airmen, who are using the 4.2-pound UAV, with a wing span of 65 inches, for reconnaissance, surveillance, force protection, battle damage assessment, and convoy security missions, adopted the small UAV from the Army. Previously the airmen used the slightly larger Desert Hawk, but “its capabilities far exceed the previous air frame,” said 1st Lt. Daryl Crosby, with the 380th ESFS. For one thing, operators can launch Raven B from moving vehicles, roof tops, or any open area, and it can go to war in a backpack. It takes both still photos and live video.”
USAF orders are separate from SOCOM’s. This item was included because it offers front-line explanations for the Raven’s popularity with SOCOM.
Additional Readings & Sources:
- Defense Update – Aladin Mini UAV
- Prioria Robotics – Maveric Mini-UAS
- Designation Systems – AeroVironment FQM-151 Pointer. The Pointer first flew in 1986 and entered operations with the US Marine Corps in June 1988. It is also used by the US Army.
- Designation Systems – AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven
- GlobalSecurity.org – RQ-11 Raven
- AeroVironment Small UAVs Site: Raven, Dragon Eye, Puma
- Designation Systems – MiTex BUSTER UAV. Here is the Jane’s piece noting that the BUSTER UAV in use by the SAS is indeed from Mission Technologies’ (MiTex), and a corroborating May 20/04 release at UAVworld.
- EADS – DRAC/ Tracker
- Elbit Systems – Skylark I
- Defense Update – Skylark I Miniature Aerial vehicle
- Israeli Weapons – Skylark 1
- NDIA National Defense (Oct 25/10) – Afghan War Creating Unprecedented Demand for New Types of Unmanned Aircraft. Still.
- Redstone Arsenal’s Redstone Rocket (Jan 27/10) – Raven Takes Flight for North
- Aviation Week Defense Technology International (March 8/08) – Mini-UAVs Rack Up Big Gains
- DID (Nov 15/05) – Field Report on Raven, Shadow UAVs From the 101st. In Iraq, but some of the lessons apply.
- StrategyPage (Oct 31/05) – Can’t Get Enough Little Birds
- C4ISR Journal (Oct 17/05) – Ready reconnaissance: U.S. commandos embrace hand-launched drones
- DID (Sept 30/05) – AeroVironment Given SBIR contract for New UAVs: Can They Do It Again?
- DID (Feb 24/05) – Raven Draws Raves from the Field
- Talking Proud – Battle for Fallujah. Includes some pictures of Ravens in use, and descriptions of how UAVs were used before the battle.
- Wall St. Journal (Dec 2/03, via AeroVironment) – AeroVironment Mini-UAVs Aid US Troops
- Popular Science (May 2003) – The Revolution Will Not Be Piloted. Good multinational overview of UAV systems at all scales; page 3 of 6 covers “mini-UAVs” like the Pointer. Since the article, more new models have arrived… including the RQ-11 Raven.
- Aviation Week & Space Technology (Aug 7/02, via AeroVironment) – War on Terrorism Boosts Deployment of Mini-UAVs