Most of the public reporting on the military’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) focuses on the big birds. The size of some airplanes, UAVs such as the Predator and Global Hawk can travel long distances, stay in the air for a long time and carry relatively heavy payloads. A derivative of the Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper is armed with Hellfire missiles and has been conducting strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen, and Gaddafi’s troops in Libya. In development is another generation of large UAVs that are stealthy, can land and take off from aircraft carriers and carry even larger and more sophisticated payloads.
It’s the smaller UAVs that receive much less attention despite the fact that there are many more of them in day-to-day use than their larger brethren. These small UAVs provide most of the route surveillance for U.S. convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan, spy on hostile forces and even support naval operations. They are relatively simple and cheap to operate and provide critical information to warfighters in direct contact with hostile forces.
One of the most successful small UAVs is the Scan Eagle. It was derived from a system originally designed to support fishing boats in their search for tuna. Since it was first deployed with the Marines in Iraq, the Scan Eagle has racked up some 456,000 combat flight hours and 57,000 sorties providing high quality video images. The Scan Eagle can operate at a distance of more than 100 miles from its launch point and remain airborne for nearly 24 hours. Unlike the larger UAVs, Scan Eagle does not require a runway for takeoff and landing; it uses a pneumatic launcher and a hook and rope system for recovery. As a result, the Scan Eagle can be launched from a wide variety of warships as well as from very small open spaces on land. The UAV also operates with heavy fuel which makes it easier to launch from warships that rarely carry large quantities of very flammable gasoline. In fact, in April 2009, a Scan Eagle was operated from a Navy ship in the Gulf of Aden during the Maersk Alabama standoff with Somali pirates.
Typically the Scan Eagle flies with an electro-optical sensor. One variant of the Scan Eagle, called the Night Eagle, employs a mid wavelength infrared imager to see at night and through obscurants. Experiments have been conducted flying the Scan Eagle with a miniature synthetic aperture radar, the first of its kind on a small UAV.
Insitu, the company that makes the Scan Eagle, was the winner in the Navy/Marine Corps competition to develop a new small tactical unmanned aerial system (STUAS). The Insitu offering, called the Integrator, will be able to carry a variety of heavier payloads for the same distances and flight duration.
The value of small UAVs is that they provide tactical units, Army/Marine platoons and individual small warships, with their own real-time overhead tactical sensors. When you need to know what is going on over the next hill, track a terrorist back to his hideout or surveil the waters around a naval vessel or a maritime facility, systems like the Scan Eagle are critical.
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