by Sgt. Mike Pryor
2nd BCT, 82nd (AA) PAO
FORT BRAGG, N.C. – When Staff Sgt. Mikel Smith first saw the little Raven Unmanned Aircraft System, he dismissed it as a toy.
"I thought, ehh, it's just a remote controlled plane," Smith said.
But after learning about the Raven's capabilities and watching it in action during weeks of operator training, Smith changed his mind.
"That's no remote controlled plane. It's a capable little bird," he said.
Smith is the non-commissioned officer in charge of the Raven Fielding Program for the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, the first brigade in the Army to be fielded Ravens as a permanent asset.
The Raven is a hand-launched, battery powered reconnaissance and surveillance tool that can transmit live airborne video images and information about the battlefield to commanders on the ground. The system consists of the Raven and its payload, a ground control station, and a remote video terminal, all of which together weighs less than 40 lbs. and can be broken down and carried in a rucksack. It flies at 150 – 1,000 feet above ground level with a range of more than 10 kilometers. And, yes, it looks like a remote controlled plane.
Since 2003, the basic Raven system, known as Raven A, has been used with great success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its primary use has been for reconnaissance and surveillance, but it has also been used for force protection, convoy security, target acquisition, and battle damage assessments, said Phil Owen, a civilian Systems Integration Trainer who is helping the Army to field the Raven system.
"Basically, anytime troops on the ground need to know what's around a corner or behind a wall, the Raven is a great tool to have," Owen said.
The Army agreed with that assessment, and this year it designated the Raven a program of record, which is its term for a piece of equipment it plans to use on long-term basis. Now the new and improved model of the system, called Raven B, is being fielded. The new version is lighter, has a longer range, and has a more advanced camera system, said Owen.
Paratroopers from the 2nd BCT were the first to receive the equipment and go through the 10 day basic operator's class .
The class covered 80 hours of instruction and included five hours of flight time with the Raven up in the air. The students, all infantrymen from 2nd BCT, learned how to launch, operate, and recover the Raven system.
The system was surprisingly easy to learn, said Pvt. Kyle Mohr, a student in the class from A Co, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment.
For soldiers raised on video games, controlling the Raven was a piece of cake. Launching it proved a greater challenge.
Unlike larger UAVs which jet boosted or catapulted into the sky, the Raven only requires a good throwing arm and a little technique.
"It's like throwing a javelin or a spear," said Smith.
After completing the course, the students will be certified as trained Raven operators. The next class is already scheduled, and the plan is to eventually field 15 sets of three Raven systems to the Brigade with an operator for each.
Mohr said he looks forward to the day when carrying a Raven system out on patrol is as common as packing a radio or global positioning system, because, for a soldier on the ground, every advantage helps.
"The important thing is, it'll probably save lives," he said.