Over the wind-swept mountains of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, a faint buzz floats over four armored vehicles, the source of the sound is invisible to the naked eye in the twilight hour of the evening.
Marines assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, posture far away with nothing more than an antenna, computer and specialized tablet, all designed to control the RQ11B Raven unmanned aerial system circling over the regimental objective.
The training was conducted as part of Steel Knight, a division-led exercise to test and develop the skills of the ground combat element in combat operations, allowing Marines to tap into their myriad of tools designed to assist in completing the mission.
“The Raven is a small, man-portable UAS we use to protect friendly lines up to five to seven kilometers out,” said Cpl. William Hastings, an intelligence analyst with the company. “Essentially we have a seven kilometer circle of influence where we can fly and monitor what’s going on around us.”
The Raven also gave the Marines an important capability to save time and manpower within the battalion.
“We also have the ability to spot for [artillery and aircraft] as well as conduct route reconnaissance,” Hastings explained.
Without this utility from the Raven, the Marines would have to find other means of surveillance, which may take hours of maneuvering and planning to get eyes on the objective.
“Since the [UAS] provides a unique capability to an infantry company or battalion,” the Londonderry, New Hampshire native explained, “It’s allows us to have an organic-level asset that can give us a bird’s eye view of the battlefield. We can get a sniper team attached to us but they can only see so far and there may be an obstacle between them and what they’re trying to see.”
Any area that a Marine can’t see is considered dead space, which decreases the unit’s understanding of their battlespace. The Raven helps limit the uncertainty.
“If we have a team out and they can’t see into dead space, we can throw the Raven up to look and identify that threat and deal with it accordingly,” explained Hastings. “It provides a really good capability to the infantry battalions.”
No piece of gear is perfect, because of that; the Raven is constantly being improved to provide more reliable support for the unit.
“Recently we just got a new update for the Raven,” Hastings said. “Normally we would have to bring the bird down for the hour that the sun goes down to put the night camera on, the new camera can now switch back and forth between heat and full-motion video.”
The new camera proved its usefulness during the exercise, he added.
“The camera helped us out yesterday,” Hastings said.
“We spotted some enemy tracked vehicles that were dug into defensive positions and we wouldn’t be able to identify the targets due to the heat change on the ground, were able to [radio] in effective fires on those targets and neutralize them.”
Normally any other UAS is an elaborate device that requires a time-consuming process, but the Raven streamlines this challenge with the simple assembly process and control system.
“The Raven comes in about seven to eight pieces and it just slides together so you just have to click everything into place,” Hastings explained. “For the flying components it’s a little more in-depth, we have to set up the computer and antenna but from start to finish, it takes on average 10 minutes if you’re trying to do it under pressure.”
After the mission is complete, the Raven is designed to land with a controlled crash and break into the parts it was assembled with, making it easy to grab on the go and head to the next objective.
The Raven helps ensure the Marines Corps remains at the front of the fight.