Army takes pint-sized unmanned aircraft digital

Analog is dead, digital data links are where it's at. At least that will soon n be the case in the US Army's diminutive unmanned surveillance aircraft, the Raven. The Raven is one of the Army's smallest unmanned aircraft weighing in at 45lbs. It has a five-foot wingspan and can stay aloft for about an hour and a half at about 60MPH.

The Army today awarded unmanned aircraft vendor AeroVironment an approximately $17.1 million contract to bring Digital Data Link support to about 300 Raven aircraft. The DDL upgrades should be finished by Oct 30, 2010, the Army said.

Adding DDL will let the Army operate as many as 16 Ravens on the same frequency rather than the four maximum currently supported on the aircraft's analog system. DDL eliminates frequency restrictions will help better control the aircraft, the Army said.

According to an Association of the United States Army article, one of the Raven's tactical shortcomings has been its reliance on an analog downlink to provide video and telemetry generated by the Raven's onboard sensor package. The analog system presents challenges in the transmission of critical full-motion video during weak signal periods and might contribute to lost link and fly-away problems. Moreover, the analog video requires significantly greater bandwidth than do digital technologies, the article stated.

The military's thirst for unmanned aircraft that can watch, hunt and sometimes kill insurgents has been unquenchable. In fact the Air Force recently said it will in 2009/2010 acquire more unmanned aircraft than manned.

The US Air Force last year gave the go-ahead for full production of the one pound, 29-inch WASP III unmanned aircraft designed to be used for special battlefield operations such as targeting and tracking.

The Aerovironment Wasp III carries interchangeable targeting payload modules, including an infrared camera, along with two integrated color cameras that transmit streaming video directly to the hand-held ground controller for display on an integrated monitor. It has been procured under the Air Force's Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air Vehicle (BATMAV) program.

Last fall AeroVironment got $4.6 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a small Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) capable of performing "hover/perch and stare" missions. The Stealthy, Persistent, Perch and Stare aircraft is built from the firm's Wasp UAS, a one-pound, 29-inch wingspan battery-powered air vehicle that is being procured and deployed by the U.S. Air Force and the Marine Corps.

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