Last month AeroVironment’s RQ-11B Raven B small unmanned air vehicle (SUAV) passed its initial operational test and evaluation. It is already in high-rate production, having been awarded an initial production contract in last October for use by the U.S. Army and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Full-rate production is expected next year, but by then the Raven B will already be widely deployed.
AeroVironment has become a world-leader in SUAV technology, having produced the successful Pointer and DragonEye. The RQ-11A Raven was a big step up in capability, and was introduced in 2002. Since then it has been used widely in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as for homeland defense and disaster-relief operations, such as that which followed Hurricane Katrina. Experience from these operations, notably that from operations in the high, mountainous environment in Afghanistan, have led to the latest Raven B.
The RQ-11 is a hand-launched, backpack-able SUAV with a wingspan of 4.5 feet. It typically operates at low level and is used for local searches and tracking.
The new SUAV can be assembled, preflight checked and launched within five minutes. Its effective radius is just over six miles and, using a rechargeable battery, it can stay aloft for up to 90 minutes.
The RQ-11 has become the standard SUAV in the U.S. Army and SOCOM, and more than 3,000 have been built. Thanks to its ability to range out ahead and to the sides of ground forces, checking buildings and spotting ambushes, Army commanders have credited it with saving numerous lives during combat operations.
The Raven B introduces some important improvements. There is a new ground control system that is much lighter and incorporates a much improved control interface. It also carries an improved sensor suite with electro- optical and infrared cameras that can look forward and sideways. The sensors now have a digital pan/tilt function. This is especially important, as the previous mechanical systems were prone to breaking during the heavy landings in rocky terrain that are prevalent in thin-air Afghan operations.
The Raven uses a deep-stall recovery method in which the vehicle descends almost vertically. While this allows it to be landed on rooftops and in confined spaces, the method can also be hard on moving parts.
The SUAV can be flown semi-autonomously, or under manual control. An associate system allows it to be controlled from a laptop, while another system allows imagery to be transmitted to other systems such as close support aircraft.
Because of its sensitive technology, the Raven can be exported only to Australia, Italy and the UK. The first two have already bought the type, and in September the UK is expected to acquire it for its special forces. As well as the Raven B, AeroVironment is also marketing the larger 8.5-foot span Puma, and the Wasp Micro UAV which has a span of just 16 inches.