FORT CHAFFEE, Ark.—Just before 4 a.m. here on July 26, 2012, with the mercury already flirting with 85 degrees Fahrenheit on a moonless and humid Arkansas morning, Army Reservist Staff Sgt. Jeremy Phetteplace told Staff Sgt. Rob Hendricks, “Remember like a Javelin” and asked him, “Clear Prop?”
Hendricks replied, “Clear.”
Phetteplace, who was kneeling by a Panasonic Toughbox laptop, shot back, “Whenever.”
With only light provided by the laptop’s screen and three chem lights near the laptop, Hendricks stepped onto a field and assumed a Javelin-like throwing pose. His left arm was pointed to the sky at about a 45 degree angle. He held in his right hand, a Raven B Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle with Digital Data Link one of the newest force multipliers to the battlefield.
Once released by Hendricks after a few steps, the Raven powered by a battery and electric motor most recently seen in “Act of Valor.” climbed straight up and leveled off.
It’s mission. To provide route reconnaissance for the 94th Military Police Company based in Londonderry, N.H., during the opening minutes of the River Warrior 2012 Training Exercise. The Exercise saw Army Reserve units and assets assigned to the 412th and 416th Theater Engineer Commands construct an improvised ribbon bridge across a portion of the Arkansas River.
The Raven was originally to be utilized to provide reconnaissance and surveillance for the exercise but unforeseen FAA restrictions would not allow it.
“If you think of a moment in battle, where it would be useful to see what’s happening from up above and quickly, the Raven is going to make that difference,” noted Sgt. Brian Randolph, who has been in the Reserve for 22 years. He and Phetteplace, a Special Education teacher who has been in the Reserve almost nine years, are trained Raven operators from the 346th Military Police Company based at Fort Riley, Kan.
“If you know how to use this system and you have a command who knows how to use this system, this is a great asset,” said Randolph.
Lt. Col. Gottfried Koblitz, commander of the Reserve’s 317th Military Police Battalion based in Tampa, Fla., noted, “It is a great tool that the Army has given the MPs. I would never thought 20 years ago I could have had a UAV at my unit.”
The team demonstrated the Raven to several soldiers in the battalion’s headquarters company. The company was command and control for the exercise and undergoing its annual Extended Combat Training Activity.
This tool weighs less than five pounds, has a wingspan that is less than five feet and is only 38 inches long.
“They’re also fast for a little model plane, are deployable in under 15 minutes and can fly at a cruising speed of 26 knots, dashing up to 44 knots,” said Randolph. They can cross a grid square in less than a minute.
What is it like to launch one of these?
It can be difficult, said Phetteplace.
“If you don’t throw it at the right angle, it will fly about 10 feet and crash,” he noted.
He added that if a Raven is launched into the wind, the wind will assist its lift upon takeoff.
A Raven can do a multitude of functions. Three cameras can be attached to its nose or payload. An Electro Optical camera that sends images through the front and side, an infrared camera in the nose and a side-mounted IR camera. These cameras capture screen images and store and playback data in real-time transmission of video and metadata to an operations network. Images are transmitted in real-time color or IR imagery to ground control and remote network viewing stations. Images can be viewed in four different magnifications—wide, medium, narrow and ultra.
During night missions, the Raven’s camera has a laser/IR illuminator to spot targets and danger areas for ground troops.
Randolph said operators can see this illuminator while wearing night vision goggles.
The Raven that has 45 to 60 minutes of flight time on a battery can be controlled by two means - autonomous or manually. There are five flight modes - manual, altitude hold, navigation, home and loiter.
The Toughbook uses a program to track the plane and manipulate its flight plan. On the touch screen, all an operator has to do is to touch it with a stylus and drag points to where he or she wants the plane to go.
There are 10 points, four that are plotted on a navigational route, one for the point of origin or “home,” two for the approach and landing and three orbital navigational points.
The nav route is a diamond default at a range of 500 meters from the point of origin where the nav route is built.
The orbital waypoints will send the aircraft into an orbit around the point with the side camera focused on that point.
The approach and landing points are used for landing the plane.
The Toughbook also displays the plane’s status in the lower left corner and video playback which is recorded on the lap top. It also will display an icon on any point that the pilot takes a picture on. If the operator clicks on the icon, it displays the picture on the laptop.
A hand controller is used to manually fly or monitor the flight of a Raven. The controller looks similar to a hand held version of a Play Station.
It has a screen that displays several types of data, including a 10-digit grid of the plane’s location, altitude, range and bearing from the home waypoint, heading and speed, camera view indicator, zoom level, flight altitude winds and flight time.
There are seven hand controller buttons—throttle switch, menu select, enter, joystick, hot key, screen capture, and payload control. The screen capture and payload control buttons are located on the back of the controller.
A Raven lands itself with the push of an autoland button. It auto pilots to a near hover and drops to the ground.
Randolph said a Raven team also can set up a Remote Viewing Terminal at a company’s Tactical Operations Center. This gives the command element a live feed of the mission in progress, he added.
Randolph said there also is available a kit that allows the Raven’s antennae to be mounted on the side of a vehicle. This will allow not only the pilot and the mobile operator to fly the plane but also to provide the convoy commander access to the feed similar to how a RVT would be set up at at TOC.
“Having that knowledge of what’s just over the horizon is one of those things you can’t really put a price tag on,” commented Randolph.
In another comparison, he cited what would you rather lose: an American soldier or a $35,000 aircraft.