Who even knew that Puma was an acronym—Pointer Upgrade Mission Ability— or that it has become the standard small drone of special operations forces? It provides capabilities never before available in small craft, and is significantly different than Raven. All of these small drones have some crucial difference that add range and flexibility, but only as costs increase with newness and then decline as serial production commences.

As a result of un-controlled procurement, fueled by two war budgets and a new alluring technology, the United States government now flies more than 100 different types of drones, generations overlapping with previous models and souped up versions of the same one: Think iPhone 5s to 5Gs to 5Ss to 6s and beyond. In the category of small hand-launched drone, there are more than two dozen pretenders, each slightly different, each an advancement, although the difference is oftentimes obscured, like telling the difference between a Chevy and a GMC, terrain left to the aficionados.

Puma is a single-person, hand-launched drone whose attributes of super quietness and a 360 degree view, more megapixels, 3x zoom, digital data link and tight landing profile make it increasingly valued and demanded. Built by AeroVironment and first introduced early in the Iraq war, the drone has already been modified and upgraded with a half dozen different packages: Puma AE (All Environment), Puma AECV (All Environment Capable Variant), Aqua Puma, Terra Puma, solar Puma, a fuel cell-powered Puma, an eavesdropping Puma, a Puma that acts as an Internet router, even some secret Pumas. Because of its relatively large size compared to Raven and Wasp, it has the power available to carry multiple payloads. And Puma carries a laser marker to illuminate targets, soon to even carry its own mini-missile.

Originally purchased by the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, an ad hoc, quick-reaction, new technology incubator, Puma is used by all four services, and has flown in missions from North Africa to Afghanistan and the Philippines. More than 300 exist, and for special operations, with its follow-me mode and two-plus hour endurance, the small drone is perfect for looking over the shoulder. Fundamentally a special operations gadget, Puma is not just quiet—it keeps its head down, low enough cost and difficult enough to find out about in real operations that it ultimately supports its own vague existence.

Fun facts about Puma:

  • The Puma AE weighs in at a slim 18 pounds, with a maximum altitude of 10,500 feet, and a cruising speed of 20-40 knots—not terribly fast, but it doesn’t need to be when it’s merely observing.
  • The word “puma” seems to be a favorite for the military. Other Pumas include a helicopter, the Precision Urban Mortar Attack program, and a NATO exercise utilizing French, American and Canadian troops, among others.
  • Luckily for us, this drone can operate in both Russia and Iraq, with the ability to operate in anywhere from -20 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Here is a video featuring Marines in Afghanistan that demonstrates just how easily Puma can be launched by a single operator:

[Images courtesy of The U.S. Marine Corps, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.]