With the US Army shifting operations from Iraq to Afghanistan, the demand for small unmanned air vehicles is moving into higher gear as well.

The army plans to buy 3,000 Raven small UAVs - and already has 2,000 in hand - from California-based AeroVironment.

During the Association of the US Army exposition in Washington, DC, another $7.2 million order for the company's Puma air vehicle was announced, expanding an August deal with the US Special Operations Command worth $35.3 million. It also received a $4.4 million order last month for a digital-datalink equipped version of the close-range, hand-launched Puma, which weighs about 5.9kg (13lb).

Puma will fill requests for a "larger small UAV" with greater payload capacity and endurance than the Raven, says Col Gregory Gonzalez, project manager for unmanned aircraft systems at the army's aviation executive office at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.

The eventual goal is to provide a brigade commander with a "family of systems" for more flexibility in the field, depending on terrain and combat situations, Gonzalez says. The family would also include AeroVironment's super-small Wasp, which weighs in at only 0.5kg.

While Gonzalez says there is "no requirement for a rotorcraft at this point," AeroVironment would be ready to add a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) member to the family if the need arose. In August 2008, the company received a $4.6 million contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for work on the stealthy, persistent, perch and stare (SP2S) programme.

AeroVironment originally said it planned to modify the Wasp for SP2S. But the company remains non-committal on what the VTOL design looks like, other than saying it is man-portable, takes off vertically and flies horizontally. It has also not revealed what kind of timeline would be needed to build the small UAV if the army decides it is needed.

"If there is ever a requirement, we will be there," says Steven Gitlin, AeroVironment's vice-president of market strategy.

Source: Flight International