In three minutes, the Scout drone is assembled. One minute more, and it’s airborne, tossed by a Marine. The flight is short, maybe 20 minutes at the most, but the information gained is valuable, a real-time video of just who or what, exactly, is behind that building a mile down the road. With the area surveilled, the aptly-named Scout drone flies back, and suffers a rough landing, snapping a wing. No matter. The squad can print another back at company HQ after the mission, and have it ready to go in a couple hours.
That’s the vision, at least, behind a new drone program, from NexLog, the Marine Corps next generation logistics team. Last February the team sent corporal Rhet McNeal to a collaborative workspace on a pier in San Francisco to see if modern design tools could build the unmanned scout drone the Corps needs. Except: the Marine Corps already has a hand-tossed drone for scouting missions like this, and it’s had one for years.
The RQ-11 Raven is a flying robot that’s seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s tossed like a javelin into the air, and if the toss works, it can then fly at speeds of up to 50 mph, at ranges of up to 6 miles, and feed video back to the operator the entire time. (If the toss doesn’t work, and the Raven gets hurtled to the ground, it can sometimes break in an expensive way). It’s also, in the world of military drones, tiny, with just a 4.5 foot wingspan and weighing just over 4 pounds. Still, not everything about the drone is small: an individual Raven drone costs over $30,000, and a whole Raven system including three Ravens and a ground control system can cost up to $250,000.