Weighing in at four and a half pounds with a five-foot wingspan and stretching a mere 38 inches in length, the Raven is by far one of the smallest vehicles in the Army, but its aerial reconnaissance value has quickly earned the respect of battalion commanders in Iraq and has filled a niche at the battalion level when larger UAVs are unavailable. Though not as large or capable as some tactical UAVs, the Raven provides units with a tremendous live-coverage capability previously available only at higher levels of command.
UAV technology is not new to the military inventory. However, since they generally required long runways and skilled operators and technicians, they were best held and managed at higher levels of command. While the intelligence gleaned typically would make its way down to the lower levels, they did not offer the same responsiveness to the battalion task force. Additionally, since the same UAVs might have to support a number of competing requirements, some units might have to wait while other requirements took priority. With its own Raven, units have the ability to perform almost immediate, on-demand, over flights of areas of concern for highly detailed, real-time intelligence without risking Soldiers' lives, greatly enhancing situational awareness.
The UAV is small and can be transported easily in three small cases that fit into a ruck sack. The crew can bring it with them and operate wherever the patrol goes. The Raven three different cameras that attach to the nose of the plane, an electrical optical camera that sends data either through a nose camera or a side camera, an infrared camera in the nose, and a side-mounted IR camera. The IR technology is still too big to fit into the nose section of the plane. The camera does not have a zoom and is unable to lock on a target but provides enough resolution to show someone carrying a weapon. The Raven has about 45 to 60 minutes of flight time on a battery. The kit comes with spare batteries and a charger that plugs into a Humvee so they can land it, pop in a spare battery and get it back in the air.
The Raven provides a number of capabilities to the military. Among the most important is the real-time, up-to-date, over-the-horizon view it provides over trouble spots. Though units are also armed with a host of modern imagery products, they are unmatched by the live, detailed, day or night coverage that the Raven provides. It also allows units to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) of danger zones without committing Soldiers, which also allows the task force to monitor an area with a less obtrusive presence.
With a moderate operational range, the Raven provides up-to-the minute intelligence over the target area. Day and night, live video capabilities let the Raven greatly assist with the overall situation awareness picture. The Raven can fly automatically, navigating using GPS technology and programmable routes and target areas, or be remotely flown by the operator when necessary.
The Raven can be launched in just minutes, by hand, into the air like a model airplane. It lands itself by auto-piloting to a near-hover and dropping to the ground, without requiring landing gear or carefully prepared landing strips. Since it is launched and recovered in this manner, it does not require elaborate support facilities and is ideally suited to a forward-deployed unit. Its' automated features and GPS technology also make it simple to operate, requiring no specially skilled operators or in-depth flight training.
History of the Raven program
In 1999, the U.S. Army bought four AeroVironment FQM-151 Pointer UAVs for the Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) ACTD (Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration) program. The Pointer system was found to be useful, but the ground control station was too large to be really man-portable. AeroVironment was therefore asked to develop a smaller station, and in turn the company also developed a smaller air vehicle, called Raven. It is about half the size of Pointer and a proof-of-concept vehicle, named the "Flashlight" SUAV (Small UAV), first flew in October 2001.
The "Flashlight" SUAV was further developed into the Raven in 2002 under the Army's "Pathfinder" ACTD program. The Raven prototype was hand-built and not suitable for mass production, and so the first LRIP (Low-Rate Initial Production) version was the modified Block I Raven, first delivered in May 2003. It had a new fuselage section with an easily interchangeable payload nose. Testing of the Block I UAVs revealed some drawbacks, including a difficult launch procedure and insufficient flight stability.
The Block I's shortcomings were corrected in the Block II version, which was first delivered to the Army in September 2003. The Block II was evaluated in Afghanistan, and the U.S. Special Operations Command eventually ordered a batch of 179 Raven systems with three UAVs each. In late 2004, the official designation RQ-11A was allocated to the Raven air vehicle.
The RQ-11A is essentially a down-sized FQM-151 Pointer, but thanks to improved technology can carry the same navigation system, control equipment, and payload. The operation of a Raven system is effectively identical to Pointer, making transition to the new smaller system particularly easy. The Raven UAV weighs about 1.9 kg (4.2 lb), has a flight endurance of 80 minutes and an effective operational radius of about 10 km (6.2 miles). Flying speed is 45-95 km/h (28-60 mph) at typical operating altitude between 30 m and 300 m (100-1000 ft). The RQ-11A can be either remotely controlled from the ground station or fly completely autonomous missions using GPS waypoint navigation. The UAV can be ordered to immediately return to its launch point simply by pressing a single command button. Standard mission payloads include CCD color video and an infrared camera.
As of early 2005, a total of more than 1300 Raven vehicles have been built, with about 2000 more on contract, and by 2006 the Army was expected to decide if it would use the Raven as a long-term asset or if it would be replaced by so-called Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs). Reportedly, the Air Force's Special Operations Command has also purchased an unknown number of Ravens.
A single Raven costs about $35,000 and the total system costs $250,000.
RQ-11 Raven in Ukraine
Raven RQ-11B mini-drones offered to Ukraine as part Washington’s military aid were useless for combat missions in the east of the country, as forces in the self-proclaimed republics can easily intercept or jam their analog video and data feeds. In July, Ukraine’s defense ministry boasted about receiving 24 of the latest AeroVironment's RQ-11B Raven drones. The $12 million deal took place as part of the European Reassurance Initiative [ERI]. The package included 72 hand-launched Raven intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft and associated equipment. By the end of 2016, less than six months into service, the Ukrainian side has found American RQ-11B drones to be useless for surveillance operations in Lugansk and Donetsk.
“From the beginning, it was the wrong decision to use these drones in our [conflict]," Natan Chazin, an adviser to the chief of general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, told Reuters, stressing that if it was up to him, he would return the drones. Chazin, who once allegedly served as an Israeli commando, and who now runs Aerorozvidka (air surveillance), said that AeroVironment manufactured drones now largely lie in storage. Calling them a “vulnerability" rather than an asset, Chazin said that drones might even allow the “enemy" to see Ukraine's own military positions. Furthermore, the Raven RQ-11B drones have a short battery life.
Because of its design flaws, separatist militia can easily intercept the drones or jam their video and data feed. The complex is analog, therefore command channels and data are not protected from interception and suppression by modern means of electronic warfare. The US Army admitted that all of its own Ravens have been upgraded to digital versions.