The US Special Operations Command, SOCOM - aka the "snake eater community"* - has just placed a new order for hand-launched aerial surveillance robots which could be worth up to $200m and see hundreds of portable drones delivered.
The potentially very lucky company is Aerovironment, already well known for such projects as the Helios solar-powered unmanned megawing built for NASA - not to mention ongoing efforts like the Global Observer high-altitude hydrogen spyplane and the three-inch "Nano Air Vehicle" ornithopter droid. Military robo-planes are a key area of business for the company, which offers a wide range of such systems.
In this case, the product purchased is the Puma All-Environment, or Puma AE. It is thrown into the air by hand, there to fly about on quiet electric drive looking at things from on high with its daylight and infrared cameras.
So far, so ordinary - just another hand or bungee launched ground-troop spyplane. These are now increasingly common in better-funded armies, though sometimes getting clearance to fly them from military air-traffic controllers can be a headache. (Special forces formations like SOCOM have been said to ignore the usual military niceties, however.)
The special sauce this time comes with the "AE" bit, which actually means that the waterproof drone can land without problems on the sea, rivers etc as well as land. This could give the more web-footed subcultures of SOCOM - for instance the US Navy SEALs, who like a bit of boat, frogman or minisub work - an aerial recce capability useable from the water.
The initial SOCOM deal is for just 20 Puma AEs and $6m, according to Flight International. However, if the US ghost-troopers like their new wet or dry drone, a series of one-year options could take the deal to full value. ®
* Nothing naughty. Apparently you have to eat snakes during jungle survival training.