In 2003, the Marine Corps adopted the Dragon Eye UAV, the smallest functioning unmanned aerial vehicle, in an effort to minimize friendly casualties and maximize pre-movement surveillance. The Dragon Eye UAV is specifically designed to follow a predetermined mission into questionable areas to deliver a bird's eye view of its surroundings with two near-real-time video cameras.
With the Dragon Eye, Marines have access to a new sophisticated reconnaissance tool to allow them to see what's going on further down the battlefield -- one which fits in a backpack and Marines can take it with them and use it somewhere else. Dragon Eye is a new robotic aerial vehicle funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the latest in a collection of uncomplicated, high-tech, autonomous tools that were being developed for ground forces.
As of January 2005, the Dragon Eye had been in production for three years, with the Marine Corps having fielded it in two. The Dragon Eye system was also expected to be soon utilized at a company level.
Dragon Eye's primary mission is reconnaissance and surveillance for small unit commanders, across the battlefield functions, with an organic capability to see over the next hill/building, or conduct route reconnaissance, battle damage assessment, and unit force protection. The autopilot must provide fully autonomous operation, GPS navigation, air vehicle stability for imagery, preprogrammed search patterns, inflight waypoint updates, and interface protocol with the GCS software and payload sensors.
The Dragon Eye (DE) Interim-Small Unit Remote Scouting System (I-SURSS) was developed by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., as a small, fully autonomous, back-able, hand launched UAV to provide the Marine Corps an "over-the-next-hill, or building" tactical reconnaissance and surveillance capability.
A Marine on a dangerous reconnaissance mission in unknown or enemy territory has a problem if he doesn't know what's over the hill in front of him and the situation doesn't lend itself to sending out scouts. But, if he can easily launch an instrument that has the radar signature of a bird, and can get the reconnaissance and surveillance information from it that he needs, then he's got a terrific advantage. The beauty of the system is that it allows the Marine immediately to make out not only the nature and general size and condition of the enemy in front of him, but their movements, their hardware, the general landscape and the cover provided. And best of all, it comes back when called.
The Dragon Eye System is intended to provide threat detection and reconnaissance capabilities to the United States Marine Corps Small Unit. Dragon Eye consists of a man-portable, multi-role, 2 kilogram, hand-launched fixed wing air vehicle, and a wearable Ground Control Station (GCS) to provide control of, and receive intelligence from, the air vehicle. Dragon Eye is just one solution. And it has proven to be very useful for its particular niche.
Dragon Eye is a five-pound modular UAV system capable of fully autonomous flight. Made of lightweight material, the UAV is designed to disassemble into five separate pieces and be back-packable by individual Marines. Dragon Eye is solely composed of fiberglass and Kevlar. It breaks down into five pieces for easy transport including a fuselage, a tail, a nose and two wings. The Dragon Eye is primarily used in missions to take pictures of supposed improvised explosive device strips and bunkers on buildings invisible from the ground. The air vehicle's battery provide up to 60 minutes of flight time, and the aircraft has a flight weight approximating 5 pounds.
Propeller-driven, Dragon Eye comes packed with a video camera. It is assembled and launched by a two man team in approximately 10 minutes though possibly less than five minutes, and comes complete with a portable control station. This UAV can reach speeds of 35 miles-per-hour, altitudes of 1,000 feet and distances of 10 kilometers. It weighs approximately six pounds fully assembled and spans wing-to-wing at three feet. Its maximum endurance rate is approximately 60 minutes, while 45 minutes is nominal. Dragon Eye's operating altitude was originally believed to be between 300 and 500 feet above ground level, with a video link range in excess of 5 kilometers.
The aircraft is programmed via a seven pound rugged-ized handheld computer which is capable of flight planning, flight monitoring, and storage of air vehicle transmitted video. The aircraft's flight profile is GPS waypoint guided, each waypoint allowing for various linear, and orbiting search patterns and altitudes. Missions are programmed via a wireless modem that is integrated into a small, lightweight ground control station. After bungee launch, Dragon Eye flies to pre-assigned GPS waypoints but the aircraft's flight profile has the ability to be reprogrammed in flight.
The Marine uses a wearable ground control station with a computer processor and a map display that is located on his forearm or attached to his vest. By clicking on the moving map display, he tells the bird how high and where to fly, and programs when he wants it to return. A video stream comes back to a monitor contained in the wearable ground station. Lithium batteries allow for 60 minutes of flight time at a speed of about 45 mph. It has about a 10-kilometer range, and could, theoretically, be passed from one Marine to the next to extend this range if batteries are replaced.
Proper operation of the system takes a two-man team - one man to assemble the aircraft and one man to get the ground control station up and running. The GCS - a computer system designed to control and operate the aircraft from the ground - is a touch screen, laptop computer with wireless satellite connections, which sends signals to the plane. The operator can view the video through a pair of goggles connected to the GCS. There are three interchangeable nose cameras including one for low-light situations such as dusk and dawn, one for regular daylight and an infrared nose used for night launches. One camera is mounted inside the nose of the plane and a second is located on the left side. While the nose camera can move any direction, the left camera can only point straight, but delivers an eight-digit grid at the center point of the video. Its small size and aerodynamic design allow it to be a hard target while executing a mission.
The aircraft's payloads are capable of real-time high resolution day color, and low light black/white imagining. Dragon Eye's electric motors provide an extremely low noise signature, and the small wingspan make it very difficult to detect.
The UAV sensors include full motion color, low light, and in the future other sensors such as infrared cameras in interchangeable payload noses. The system is capable of transmitting sensor and air vehicle telemetry data line-of-sight (LOS) to a range of ten kilometers. Dragon Eye flies up to speeds of 35 mph and has a battery endurance of almost one hour. The system is based on an evolutionary acquisition strategy which plans performance improvements in future block upgrades. The autopilot must weigh less than 4 ounces. The GCS software must run on the current DE Ground Control Station, which uses the Panasonic Toughbook 34 laptop computer with windows 2000 operating system.
Dragon Eye is made primarily with commercial, off-the-shelf materials -- so even if captured by enemy fire or other tactics, it is easily replaceable.
Ten prototype versions of the Dragon Eye unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) were initally believed likely to be deployed with troops in the event of a US attack on Iraq. The Dragon Eye UAV was used in Operation Iraqi Freedom with Dragon Eye photos used for intelligence briefs.
The bench model was built and demonstrated by the Naval Research Laboratory. AeroVironment Inc. and BAI Aerosystems, competing contractors, manufactured the prototype systems. Contractor downselect had been scheduled for November 2002, but was pushed back to March 2003. The Marine Corps was to then conduct a "fly-off" between the two competitors to make its decision. This man-packable system was very close to a production capability, depending on the direction the Marine Corps decided to go.
The United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Systems Command, has sought a vendor to develop an alternate source of supply for the autopilot and Ground Control Station software subsystems of the Dragon Eye (DE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The objective of this RFI was to solicit interest from industry firms capable and interested in participating in this effort.
The United States Air Force's Force Protection Airborne Surveliance System (FPASS) UAV system (air vehicle nomenclature is the Desert Hawk) currently uses a modified version of the same autopilot and software system. The Desert Hawk air vehicle is used by Air Force Security Forces Personnel to see beyond base perimeters and add an additional layer of assessment/protection for bases throughout the world. It is the Marine Corps' intent to work with the Air Force Electronic Systems Center's Force Protection C2 Program Office to integrate Desert Hawk's functional requirements into this alternate autopilot and GCS software architecture. MCSC will be the lead agency for this effort.
As of January 2005, the US Marine Corps had only one Dragon Eye instructor. The course offered by Marine Corps System Command to familirize one-self with the UAV consisted of a five-day course on the proper procedures and techniques to operate the remote controlled surveillance machines. The course was being offered to any military occupational specialty field, upon the individual command's discretion.
The upgraded version of the DragonEye UAV - RQ-14B Swift is slightly heavier, it has more powerful batteries, which allowed to increase the maximum flight duration from 60 to 80 minutes. This drone uses the same controls as other AeroVironment UAVs. At the moment, it is known about the delivery of six Swift systems to the US Special Operations Command.
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