Soldiers in Afghanistan are requesting an increasing number of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the hand-launched Raven aircraft and slightly-larger Puma drone, Army officials said.

Col. Gregory Gonzalez, the project manager for unmanned aircraft systems in the Program Executive Office for Aviation at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., told reporters this week that the fight in Afghanistan, particularly in the south, is significantly different than in Iraq and is creating a demand for different UAVs.

“One of the things that we seen is an increased demand for the small (unmanned aerial system) UAS down at the soldier level, at the squads and the platoons and the companies,” Gonzalez said Monday during a bloggers roundtable from the Association of the United States Army annual convention in Washington, D.C.

The “shift in demand” is driven by platoons that are responsible for covering large swaths of land with few soldiers, he said.

The Raven, made by AeroVironment Inc., is fielded to all brigades in Afghanistan.

“We’re seeing some significant requests for additional small UAS, like the Raven, and we’re also having some greater demand for a system that is just slightly larger than the Raven, called the Puma All Environment (AE),” Gonzalez said. “With these aircraft, they are providing the soldiers significant eyes beyond…what they can normally see and what they have not had in the past. And so we’re seeing a great success with that.”

The Army is buying more Pumas to meet urgent requests from theater for a small UAV larger than the Raven. The four-pound Raven has experienced problems in Afghanistan’s rugged environment.

California-based AeroVironment makes the Raven and Puma AE, as well as the much-smaller Wasp UAV that weighs less than two pounds.

The Army is pursuing creating a “family” of the three small UAVs for tactical operations, said Col. Robert Sova, the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s capability manager for UAS. Sets of the three small drones are being tried out by a unit in Afghanistan.

For “the small UAS, we are very (much) looking forward to the proof of principle, where we have even the Puma that was mentioned, the Raven, and we also have a smaller system that’s less than 2 pounds, the Wasp, and that will prove out and provide us an ability to pursue a family…for our tactical operation,” Sova told reporters.

Gonzalez also said the Army has had success with the quick-reaction capability platoon of Gray Eagle UAVs fielded to Afghanistan last month. The first Gray Eagle quick-reaction capability was fielded to Iraq last year and has since flow over 6,000 hours, he said.

The four Gray Eagles now in Afghanistan have “significant improvements,” over those used in Iraq, including Hellfire missiles, upgraded software, and non-line-of-sight command- and-control capabilities.

The second quick-reaction capability is supporting Army Special Operations Forces, Gonzalez said.

“It will take a few weeks for the unit to get all of their equipment to get set up and begin operations, but they have successfully deployed there, and we’re looking forward to some great feedback,” he said.

The two quick-reaction capabilities are early fieldings of the Gray Eagle program of record, which is slated to have an initial operational test and evaluation in September 2011.

“We are on track to have that take place successfully,” Gonzalez said.