When the Royal Canadian Navy decided to advance their tactical drone operations, certain requirements needed to be met. They were looking for a drone with an extended flight time and range of distance. They also needed a drone that could be launched manually. Many military grade drones are launched from a docking platform. On a ship, such a platform would first have to be bolted down to the deck, a waste of limited space. This is why the Royal Canadian Navy turned to the Simi Valley, California aerospace defense contractor AeroVironment to provide a drone perfectly suited to the demands of navy operations.
AeroVironment was founded in 1971 by Paul MacCready, an aeronautical engineer who dedicated his carer to developing aerospace vehicles that, as he would say, could “do more with less”. AeroVironment went on to design groundbreaking aerospace vehicles like the first successful human powered aircraft, the Gossamer Condor, as well as several unmanned vehicles for NASA such the Pathfinder series, Helios, and Centurion. Today, under the leadership of President and CEO Wahid Nawabi, AeroVironment has shifted their focus to developing drones for military resources. With drones like the Raven, Wasp, and Puma, AeroVironment has become the primary small drone supplier for the United States Pentagon.
The tactical drones AeroVironment designs, like the Puma, are best known for being small and lightweight. This enables them to be launched manually from any location in the world. Military officers could be in the middle of a desert, on the side of a cliff, deep in a forest, or on the deck of a warship and still be able to deploy a drone. In 2019, the Royal Canadian Navy began a trial program with the Puma onboard two Kingston class defense ships. Officers of the Naval Combat Information Operator and Weapons Engineering Technician teams enrolled in a three week course with the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command to learn how to use AeroVironment’s Puma drones.
The officers chosen to operate the Puma drones had to learn how to launch and retrieve the drones. Unlike most drones that are launched from the ground or a platform, Puma if launched by throwing it in the air, think of a giant paper airplane. Operating the drone requires two people, a mission operator, and a vehicle operator. Working as a team the two officers unpack the Puma from a space saving case and assemble it in just a few moments. The vehicle operator then hoists the lightweight drone over their shoulder to launch it up into the air. To retrieve, the drone is guided down to the ground or the water. Because it is so light, the drone skids to a stop without crashing. The team then gathers up and repacks the drone into its case.
The Puma 3 AE (All Environment) weighs only 15lbs, is 4.6ft long, with a 9.2ft wingspan. It has a flight time of 2.5 hours and a distance range of 12 nautical miles that can handle the demands of all weather environments. It can fly at an altitude of 10,500ft and is virtually silent to anyone below once it reaches an altitude of 500ft. Royal Canadian Navy Lieutenant-Commander Atkinson explained that with the Puma, the ship’s crew will be able to see beyond the horizon if there are any dangers out of sight. “It helps the commander then make a decision on how they want to approach, if there any risks, and what the concerns may be,” Atkinson said.
In December 2020, AeroVironment announced the arrival of its Extended Range Antenna (ERA), a lightweight component that is compatible with Puma and AeroVironment’s full range of tactical drones. ERA narrows the antenna beamwidth so that Puma can be operated within an extended range, an additional 24.9 miles. An AeroVironment press release from December 10, 2020, states, “By adding the ERA kit to their existing AeroVironment RF antenna, UAS flight operators can immediately expand their operational capabilities, gaining actionable battlefield intelligence at greater stand-off range to maximize their stealth and safety. When used in combination with other AeroVironment network connectivity options, the ERA provides an enhanced level of operational flexibility. This enables teams to coordinate command and control transfer of UAS, such as Puma LE, easily over greater distances, maximizing the aircraft’s multi-mission capabilities, in day or night operations, across dynamically changing environments.”
The drone industry is constantly changing to meet the needs of its consumers. While commercial drone use has grown tremendously over the last few years, military drones still make up the largest sector for the overall drone industry. By creating alternative drones, AeroVironment has filled a niche in the military drone market. As stated on their website, “At AeroVironment, our purpose is to secure lives and advance sustainability through transformative innovation. Our solutions give our customers a fresh vantage point, positioning them to see the world with new eyes and extending their reach beyond the line of sight…Whether they are warfighters searching for an enemy, border patrol agents searching for people in need of assistance, or telecom providers linking millions to the digital economy, our customers choose AeroVironment because our systems generate actionable intelligence reliably, creating a path to goals that would otherwise be unattainable.”