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8 November 2007

By Douglas Harpel, reporting from LAS Anaconda/Balad Air Base, Iraq

They may look like toys, but operators of these three-foot long, four-pound unmanned aircraft report that they are delivering critical real-time tactical intelligence, day and night, to battalion, company and even platoon level units across Iraq.

A downsized derivative of the AeroVironment FQM-151 Pointer, the man-portable RQ-11A Raven is the smallest unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in wide use by the Army today.  
Powered by lithium-ion batteries and sporting high resolution day (EO), night (IR) and side-view laser illuminator (LI) payloads, these soldier-launched systems can fly 30-60 knots at altitudes under 300 meters on reconnaissance missions of up to 80 minutes. 

The system has an effective operational radius of ten kilometers.  A single Raven air vehicle costs about $35,000 and the total system costs $250,000.

First deployed in 2003, the Raven air vehicle, its various payloads and its ground control system can readily be single-man carried in two suitcases or a rucksack.  The aircraft, generally employed by a two man team, can be assembled and launched within minutes. 
Controlled by a small handheld control pad – not unlike a PSP game controller -- the Raven is capable of following preprogrammed automatic GPS waypoints or by manual/remote control when necessary. 

The air vehicle lands by crashing or – DSD is told -- by being caught by the operators.
Based in part on its landing method, automation and use of GPS, the Raven requires no specially skilled operators or in-depth flight training.  Indeed, operator training – which is now conducted in-theater in Kuwait as well as in the United States -- is comprised of forty hours of ground school instruction and forty hours of flight time.

Iraq Operation

Nearly one thousand Raven aircraft – as part of 321 Raven system sets -- are today in the hands of operators and are providing enhanced situational awareness to forward-deployed Army elements across Iraq. 

According to the Army’s PM Unmanned Aircraft Systems (P
M-UAS), Raven aircraft have flown some 79,737 sorties and logged 65,871 flight hours in Iraq as of 23 October 2007. 

Operators here in Iraq – where demands for real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) information is pressing to say the least – find that the Raven has changed the way they can gather information about areas of concern. 
As Army Staff Sergeant and Raven operator Rodney Balancier told DSD: “The Raven is an extra set of eyes. 

With the system in the battalion,” he adds: “we’re not begging for information from upper echelons and we’re not waiting for it.  Having Raven means that we don’t have to send a patrol outside the wire in order to get the information we want.  Sometimes it means that we don’t have to risk a life.” 
Among its most important missions, according to Army Sergeants and Raven operators Frederick McDuffy and Joseph Woodson, are assisting in mission planning (assessing terrain, bridges, alternate routes) and actually flying in front of convoys alerting for IED emplacements and ambushes. 

“If you’ve remapped the route with a Raven” explains Sgt. McDuffy “it helps you know, it gives you a better chance that you won’t run into an ambush or confront an IED.”
As to the Raven’s shortcomings, operators describe the optical capability of the Raven system as limited, noting that its camera cannot pan, tilt or zoom.  While there is some complaint that the engine is too loud to allow unnoticed surveillance of an area of interest, others note that the Raven’s audible presence over an area has a positive deterrent effect on such activities as IED, rocket or mortar emplacement. 

They also add, at least in discussions with this reporter, that it would be nice if the Raven had an attack capability.  Said Sgt. Balancier: “To be truthful, the guys kid me sometimes about flying my little plane.  Now if the Raven could blow something up…”

And wouldn’t you know it -- there a plan to do just that.  A Raven-like modification called SWITCHBLADE currently in development emplaces a small high explosive charge next to the sensor package giving the bird a decidedly one-way flight.

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