Let the Games Begin!

No, not those games, though we do confess to being fascinated by China’s attempts to mitigate — or at least conceal — its pollution problem as the opening days of the Beijing Olympics approach.

The games we’re talking about are the Commando Olympics in Afghanistan. Defense Industry Daily has a good roundup of the competition that sends our little rocket scientist hearts a-thumping with excitement: the competition between micro portable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).

Getting the gold is the U.S. military’s RQ-11 Raven


The Raven is a 4.2-pound, backpackable, hand-launched sensor platform that provides day and night, real-time video imagery for “over the hill” and “around the corner” reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. Each Raven system typically consists of 3 aircraft, a ground control station, system spares, and related services.

As a measure of its success, The 3,000th RQ-11A Raven vehicle rolled of the production line back in March 2006. U.S. armed forces use Ravens extensively for missions such as base security, route reconnaissance, mission planning and force protection. According to the U.S. Army, Ravens were flown for approximately 150,000 combat hours in 2007.

DID notes that th e Raven is "ideal for quick peeks to see what’s on the other side of obstructed terrain – like a city block in Iraq, or Afghanistan’s hills and mountains." It’s small and unobtrusive —  weighing just over 4 pounds, and with a wingspan of just over 4 feet — and has a low noise signature, making it ideal for use by small special forces teams.
Furthermore, the Raven is "so simple to operate that one of the best pilots in the Iraqi theater was a cook."

But the Raven is not the only mini-UAV in use by special forces around the world: the British have the hand-launched BUSTER (Backpack Unmanned Surveillance Targeting and Enhanced Reconnaissance), the Australians have the Elbit Skylark,  and the French have the EADS DRAC Tracker.

The Russians are also investing strongly in mini-UAV development:

 Russian aviation firms are taking advantage of cheaper and more reliable new technology to create mini-UAVs for their police and special operations (commando) forces. One such device was recently demonstrated. It was a miniature helicopter, weighing less than 30 pounds, and capable of staying aloft for two hours at a time. Day and night video cameras were carried, and zoom capability was demonstrated. The Unmanned Systems UAV used a laptop based controller. The mini-chopper had a cruising speed of 50 kilometers an hour and a max altitude of 2,000 meters (out of range of most rifles and machine-guns). The helicopter can operate up to 40 kilometers from its base station.

How far can these little birds fly? Last November, a hydrogen fuel-cell powered micro UAV,  the Pterosoar, set a new distance record for craft of its type while only using a quarter of its available fuel.

The Pterosoar flew 78 miles, beating the previous record of 50 miles set in Estonia last year. Since it – consumed only 16 of the 64 grams grams of Hydrogen stored on board in a pressurized hydrogen tank, the aircraft has a potential flight range of 310 miles.