Little heralded or known, in the actual revolution that brought small drones into virtually every combat unit of all four military services, Pointer was a pioneer. Developed first for the Marine Corps in 1986, Pointer was the first hand-held drone—45 pounds and transportable in a backpack. They were used in Desert Storm in 1990 and ended up being the first drones on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11, later serving in Iraq.

Pointer was not a killer, nor is it really capable of high resolution imagery. As a tactical system, it provided situational awareness—literally the ability to look over the hill or outside a bases’ perimeter, carrying color or infrared video cameras, able to see from either front or side views and relaying video back to the user. In Afghanistan, Air Force aircraft spotters working with the CIA and the Northern Alliance quietly used the battery-powered Pointers to reconnoiter Taliban front lines to better place bombs on bunkers and troop concentrations. When conventional troops arrived to fight about a month later and heard that the special operators had their own personal drones, they agitated for Pointers too, and thus the Raven was born, the most ubiquitous military drone today, in the world.

These small drones—and two wars—have practically made AeroVironment into the power house company that it is today. In November 2003, Congress approved the final purchase of Pointer (and next-generation Ravens) to start to supply the troops in Iraq. Versions have also been deployed with sensor for air pollution sensing and chemical weapons detection. The DEA also purchased Pointers in the early 1990s.

The Pointers are practically all gone, but not before they served as inspiration for the Desert Hawk and Raven, quietly living on as the special operations Puma drone, which is actually an acronym for Pointer Upgraded Mission Ability. Thus, in addition to being the vanguard for the development of personal reconnaissance in the form of Raven, they are also serving quiet duties with all service special operators in very special missions.

Fun facts about Pointer:

  • An Air Force report from 1992 claimed, “...Pointer...operations proved to be disappointing. Line of sight limitations, sensitivity to strong winds, and lack of an on-board system to identify vehicle position hanpered Pointer operations and the Ex-Drone was limited to day, fair-weather missions.” Seems like a great foundation for the drone that is currently the standard for special operations missions.
  • Pointer was the first small drone used bye the Navy to test the “capability of a small airborne point chemical agent sensor to detect, identify, and report the presence of a chemical vapor danger downwind from an emission source.”
  • Here’s a fun telenovela-esque compilation of Raven and Pointer screenshots and video from a UAV specialist based in Florida:

[First photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy; second photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.]