COASTAL RIVERINE FORCES USE UNMANNED SYSTEMS TO SEE BEYOND THE BEND
BY RICHARD R. BURGESS, MANAGING EDITOR
During the Vietnam War, the Navy built
up a formidable riverine patrol and assault
force to ply the rivers of the Mekong Delta.
Although heavily armed, they were vulnerable to ambushes from the jungle shorelines.
Except for helicopter gunship support, they
were blind to what threats might lie around
the bend in the river.
The Navy resurrected its riverine force during the
war in Iraq and faced similar threats in the last decade, but it still lacked an organic capability to see
around the corner. Today, however, the coastal riverine force is equipped with a nautical unmanned aerial
“We operate the Aqua Puma [Pointer Upgraded
Mission Ability] unmanned aerial system [UAS] in
order to give crews better situational awareness in the
maritime battlespace,” said Capt. Robert Cepek, commander of Coastal Riverine Group Two.
The Aqua Puma is the Navy’s nickname for the
RQ- 20 Puma AE (All-Environment), a small UAS
built by AeroVironment, a company that also builds
the RQ-11B Raven and RQ-12A Wasp IV small UASs in
extensive use with the Marine Corps.
“The RQ- 20 Puma is a 13.5-pound, all-environment,
hand- or mechanical-launched, reconnaissance and
surveillance UAS,” said Marine Col. Eldon Metzger,
program manager for Navy and Marine Corps Small
Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems. “Because of its
longer endurance, it is well suited for persistent surveil-
lance of targets and areas of interest. It has a minimal
footprint and can provide the ‘over-the-hill’ view for
The RQ- 20 originally was designed for U.S. special
operations forces. The RQ-20A version was introduced
in 2008 and has been operated by the Navy’s coastal
riverine force, the Marine Corps, the Army and several
What separates the Puma AE from other small UAVs is
that it can land in water, be retrieved and flown again.
Coastal and riverine patrol boats are too small to
carry the large pneumatic launch and net or hook
recovery systems of larger UAVs. The boat crews must
launch UAVs by hand and fish them out of the water
after a deep-stall landing. Despite its 9-foot wingspan, the 14-pound Puma AE is easily hand-launched
by one person.
“We’ve launched off of many craft, including up to
DDGs [guided-missile destroyers],” said Dave Sharpin,
vice president and general manager of AeroVironment’s
Tactical UAS Business Unit. “It’s easy for one person
to launch it. The platform is waterproof, the payload is
waterproof. So all they need is a hook to take it out of
the water and relaunch it. It’s the only all-environment
platform of its type.”
Sharpin said the Puma AE is a kit transported in a
case and can be quickly assembled on a craft and then
“We have several different control mechanisms,” he
said. “The most common is our ground control system,
the hand control, where it’s just basically like a video
Most of the RQ-20s are used by the Marine Corps,
but the Navy also has been operating them for several
years. An upgraded version, the RQ-20B, developed in
2013, entered service with the fleet in 2016.
During summer 2016, the Navy deployed the Block
2 Puma AE on a guided-missile destroyer, the Navy’s
program office said.
“The Block 2 has been designated the RQ-20B, and
features a more powerful and lighter engine, lighter
and stronger airframe, long-endurance battery, precision navigation and an improved user interface.
The Navy currently has 58 systems being utilized as
a Fleet User Evaluation on various vessels,” the program office said.