U.S. Special Operations Command Bought Tiny Drones It Knew Didn’t Work
The Puma couldn’t pass tests, but the Pentagon paid for it, anyway
by MATTHEW GAULT
The Pentagon loves drones — and not just the U.S. Air Force’s deadly Reapers and Predators. U.S. forces field all kinds of drones, from the large flying kill-’bots to fist-size surveillance droids.
America’s Special Operations Forces are no different. The commandos use small hand-launched drones for battlefield surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance. The drones save time and lives. They’re great … when they work.
AeroVironment’s RQ-20A Puma AE doesn’t work so well. The small, hand-thrown drone looks like a model plane with a fancy camera attached to the bottom. Outwardly, it’s not unlike the hundreds of commercial drones available on store shelves the world over.
Except it kinda sucks. But that didn’t stop the Pentagon from buying it.
U.S. Special Operation Forces tested the drone a few years ago, with the intention of buying several dozen copies if the design met commandos’ needs.
It didn’t. One tester reported that the Puma was “cumbersome and lacked durability for employment in realistic operating conditions.” In the views of several other testers, the Puma couldn’t land in high winds, weighed too much and sported a low-quality camera.
Strange then, that U.S. Special Operations Command bought 41 Pumas in September 2014 — and plans to spend another $35 million on additional copies through 2019.
And no one can explain why. A February 2015 report from the Department of Defense Inspector General that War Is Boring acquired via the Freedom of Information Act outlines the commandos’ Puma-problems.
When Special Operations Forces need a piece of specialty equipment such as a loudspeaker, vehicle armor or drone, it runs candidates through rigorous testing to ensure the equipment meets requirements. Supplies that don’t pass the test don’t get used. Except for the AeroVironment RQ-20A Puma AE, for some reason.
The inspector general’s report is, in fact, a routine audit of SOCOM’s testing procedures. Investigators picked six pieces of equipment and looked at the commandos’ testing of the gear. The trials for five bits of kit were fine. But the tests for the so-called “all-environment-capable-variant small unmanned aircraft systems” weren’t fine.
Special Operations Forces needed “a portable unmanned aerial vehicle that can operate in a wide range of harsh environmental conditions and has the ability to land in salt and fresh water,” the report explains. The drone should weigh 50 pounds or less.
The Puma failed the trials. It just wasn’t the drone the commandos were looking for. But SOCOM granted the Puma an exception — and bought several dozen of them, anyway.
“It is an all-environment airplane, which means it can fly in all weather conditions,” AeroVironment claims in a promotional video for the Puma. “Recovery sites can be in the water, as well. So we can operate in land, mud, rocky desert surfaces and the water in the ocean.”
The Special Operations Forces testers disagreed. “The [Puma] works great under most of the conditions we encountered … all except winds,” explained one Puma tester the DODIG report quotes. “The gusts of winds cause the aircraft to turn and climb uncommanded numerous times during the testing phase.”
“When the mission is complete the airplane will come back to a GPS-selected spot on the ground to perform an automatic landing,” the Puma video claims. “It will know, based on its own altitude and based on winds, where to initiate this auto-landing — and land within 25 meters of [the selected spot].”
Ahem. “Landing accuracy was not met in 11 of 25 flights,” the I.G. report claims. Turns out the Puma’s much-vaunted autolanding feature only works sometimes. Winds of nearly 15 knots knocked the Puma off-course as far as 100 yards. To be clear — SOCOM wanted a drone that could withstand winds up to 20 knots.
The Puma is also supposed to be lightweight and waterproof. Indeed, SOCOM wanted a drone that weighed 50 pounds or less during transport. AeroVironment packaged its trial ’bots in foam sealed in waterproof bags. They weighed … 51 pounds.
Worse, the foam cases broke apart during testing. One tester complained that the cases were cumbersome and required their own cases to keep them intact during shipping. Another griped that the whole setup was a pain to load and unload.
So AeroVironment provided a fancier waterproof case for the Puma. But the new case jacked the weight up to 110 pounds. Not exactly a light load for an operator in the field.
Oh, and the camera sucked, too. “Adapters are somewhat chintzy and the pins would fall out, creating a fault in the charging process,” one tester explained. “[The infrared] camera has horrible resolution; unable to positively ID targets; needs improvements.”
According to SOCOM, the testers sounded the alarm about the poor-performing drone, but officials granted the ’bots an exception, regardless.
Because … reasons? We don’t know. SOCOM didn’t say why it made an exception, just that it had.
“SOCOM followed the [drone] test methodology and correctly fielded the [drones] per acquisition regulations,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Clark wrote in his official response to the investigation.
“However, [command] acknowledges [performance parameters] that were deemed ‘met with exceptions’ were not adequately revalidated,” he continued. Clark also explained that SOCOM wasn’t planning on buying anymore Pumas “due to numerous obsolescence issues.”
Clark said SOCOM wanted the upgraded Puma II, instead. It’s supposed to fix the problems the testers identified. According to the DODIG report, Special Operations Forces were scheduled to test the new drone in January 2015.
War Is Boring reached out to AeroVironment and asked if SOCOM had made the company aware of the problems with the first round of Pumas. We also wanted to know if the tech company had fixed the Puma’s known problems. “You would need to contact …. SOCOM for any comments on this topic,” AeroVironment replied.
U.S. Special Operations Command did not respond to our request for comment. Because … reasons.