Thursday, May 12, 2011

Handheld Spy Drone Too Wimpy for Iraq’s Marines: "

When Marine companies in Iraq first got hold of the tiny spy plane known as the Raven in 2008, it seemed like a perfect fit. Iraq was a decentralized fight — a hundred tiny wars inside a single big one. So it made sense that platoon and company leaders would want an overhead view of their private war zone.

Turns out the tiny spy drone was a little too flimsy and too precious — with too weak a battery – to get excited about. The Raven was “valuable,” a study later concluded, but it wasn’t a game changer.

That’s the assessment of a recently declassified 2009 paper from the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned, acquired by Danger Room. The heavily redacted paper looks at two Marine battalions that flew the hand-launched, battery-operated Ravens as a company- and platoon-level spy tool. It determined the drone was “easier to operate and more durable” than the Dragon Eye, the tiny drone that the Marines used before the Raven. (Although that’s not saying much.)

Some Marines were too concerned with losing the drone to use it regularly, the study found. After a few months of experimentation, they found it useful for figuring out how many people were voting in local elections, or for spooking insurgents by flying it over enemy positions. Others actually wanted a Predator, not a Raven, and used the tiny drone like its big-boy cousin.

Manufactured by AeroVironment, the Raven is a 4-pound robotic plane with a wingspan of less than 5 feet, resembling a big model airplane. Its infrared cameras see from a distance of 10 kilometers [6.2 miles] and port its pictures imagery back to a ground station.

While AeroVironment calls it the “most advanced small” drone the military uses, the Marines quickly spotted a problem: It’s not so great in cities, where “various electromagnetic signals” in dense urban areas interfered with its operations — as did buildings. Weather was also a problem, but the specific weather patterns that messed with the drone are redacted from the public version of the report.

But it proved to be useful for other things. In Haditha, one of the battalions flew the Raven over polling places during the 2009 elections to determine the turnout. “General gatherings and demonstrations by local people” would occasion a Raven flight, to give the Marines a sense of what was boiling over.

Enterprising commanders figured out there were psychological advantages to the tiny plane. One “flew the Raven over known insurgent rocket-launch sites to dissuade insurgents from using that area to employ the rockets.”

But because the drone’s batteries won’t let it fly for longer than 110 minutes, the Marines couldn’t use it for “pattern of life” analysis, figuring out the changes in a given area over a long period of time. The report also notes that one of the units that fielded the Raven was a poor fit: “The unit’s static posture did not lend itself to using the [Raven] for ‘over the next hill’ type missions, for which it was designed.”

Interestingly, at least one of the battalions didn’t appear to have much use for the Raven. The 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines weren’t facing a tough combat environment, having transitioned much of their duties to the Iraqi security forces.

That meant flying the Raven wasn’t strictly necessary — and carried the headache of recovering it if it crashed, which the commander called “one of his greatest concerns.” One company set a limit of a single kilometer on all Raven flights, which had the ironic effect of making its impromptu drone operators more confident in flying a system that wouldn’t be sent far away.

Some seemed to fly it when they were bored: “During periods when the operations tempo was lower, units attempted to press the system into a more persistent ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] role, a role for which it is not optimized.” In other words, they confused their tiny Raven for a much bigger Predator drone — a spy plane that can linger in the air for a day at a time.

Some tried to use the drone for longer missions than AeroVironment intended: “During periods when the operations tempo was lower, units attempted to press the system into a more persistent ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] role, a role for which it is not optimized.”

The general assessment is that the Raven was nice to have in a pinch. But for the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, its availability didn’t reduce a “reliance on theater or national level” recon or surveillance assets. Which makes sense: You can’t use them for long distances or for prolonged periods of time, so it’s most useful as a supplementary, tactical spy device. That’s what the Army uses it for as well.

Ultimately, the report considered the Raven a “valuable” spy drone, and smiled on its prospects as the Corps gets better training in how to fly it and troubleshoot it. But there’s clear room for improvement: Some wanted a longer battery life; others wanted a built-in tracker for recovering a downed plane.

Indeed, if there’s an implication to draw from the Marines’ cataloged desires to use the Raven as a Predator, it’s that companies and platoons want their very own high-endurance drones. But if the Raven proved to be a mixed blessing for small Marine units, bigger, more expensive drones will have to wait for the next “captain’s war,” before they filter down to those levels.

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