Unmanned aerial vehicle technology is advancing rapidly, and drones are getting smaller by the day. Militaries are now employing Micro, Mini & Nano UAVs into their operations. They provide situational awareness to a small group of soldiers by flying several stories above them for 10-20 minutes at a time before placed back into a pocket to recharge. These will be used to carry out tasks in urban environments, such as deliveries, surveillance, and search and rescue. Small drones are considered better because they are more agile, are harder to detect, and are easier for pilots to control.
In August 2019, US Army troops in Afghanistan deployed a new reconnaissance tool: palm-size drones that weigh just over an ounce. The Black Hornet remote-control micro-copters stream hi-def video and photos, and their diminutive dimensions—and ability to fly without a GPS signal—make them especially adept at ducking into buildings, bunkers, and caves. Black Hornet PRS transmit live video and HD still images, providing soldiers with real time battleground situational awareness. This helps personnel take informed decisions and increase the efficiency of the mission. Till date, the company has delivered more than 12,000 Black Hornet nano-UAVs to defence and security forces across the globe.
The Army’s Short Range Reconnaissance (SRR) effort is spending $11 million with six companies to prototype and evaluate drones that can provide the soldier on the ground with a rapidly deployable scouting capability to gain situational awareness beyond the next terrain feature. According to the original solicitation, the drones would be expected to fly for 30 minutes straight at a range of up nearly two miles; also specified was that the aircraft should weigh three pounds or less, take less than two minutes to assemble, and fit inside a soldier’s standard-issue rucksack.
These tiny UAVs must be able to take off and land vertically, and are intended to give small tactical units, such as a platoon, quick intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information about enemy forces at the end of a street or over the next hill.
The DoD wants the UAV to have a 30min flight endurance, 1.62nm (3km) operational range, 8,000ft service ceiling and the ability to fly in 15kt (28km/h) winds or greater. The SSR programme’s desired price point for the airframe is $2,000, and another $2,000 for the optical sensor package.
The UAV should also have a maximum volume of 10 litres, with total take-off weight not exceeding 1.36kg (3lb). It should have a camera to take pictures with a minimum of 16 megapixel resolution, as well as the ability to record high definition full-motion video.
The army is also pursuing the acquisition of small UAVs through its Soldier Borne Sensor programme. The ultimate goal of that effort is to field one UAV to nearly all of the more than 7,000 squads in the service – typically, a group of seven to nine soldiers.
“The main purpose of this mission is to provide security, safety and alertness to the soldiers as to where the enemy is at all times,” says Sunny Koshal, chief of the soldier support branch at the US Army’s Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center in Illinois.
Armies employing Micro and Nano UAVs into their operations
FLIR Systems has secured an additional contract from the US Army to deliver its FLIR Black Hornet 3 Personal Reconnaissance Systems (PRS). The advanced nano-unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be delivered under the $20.6m contract will support the Army’s Soldier Borne Sensor (SBS) programme. They will support platoon- and small unit-level surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of the US Army. In January 2019 , the Army initially awarded a $39.7m contract to FLIR for Black Hornet 3’s to support the SBS programme. Delivery of these systems is currently underway. The combat-proven, pocket-sized nano UAVs are extremely light and silent and have a flight time up to 25 minutes.
Taking a crucial step in its Soldier Borne Sensor program, these drones would assist soldiers who do not have an aerial support or satellite connection in gaining insights about their surroundings. FLIR developed a proprietary composite to minimize weight without sacrificing durability, so the wee spies can fly in 15-knot wind, remain airborne 25 minutes, and venture as far as 1.5 miles on a charge. Thanks to a revamped rotor design and flight control software that works much like an autopilot, the Black Hornet is unusually easy to fly using a tablet and a pistol-grip-style controller. Soldiers carry one version for daytime use and another equipped with a thermal camera for low-light conditions. Learning to maneuver them takes just minutes, quickly (and dramatically) increasing a squad’s situational awareness.
The Australian Army is planning to equip every combat platoon with PD-100 Black Hornet micro-unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and each combat team with RQ-12 Wasp mini-UAVs, the service’s head of land capability has indicated. The PD-100 is already in use by the Norwegian, British and German Armed Forces. The fact that it is small enough to fit into the hand of most soldiers means that it can be used very discreetly. It was developed initially in Norway by Prox Dynamics AS, whom were acquired by FLIR in 2016 for £134m.
UK MOD has launched a competition offering defence firms and inventors millions of pounds in a competition for ideas of how to use the growing field of unmanned vehicle technology to get supplies up to the front. Solutions would need to be get equipment across difficult terrain, through bad weather, from just behind the front line to right up to where troops are fighting, according to the competition announcement.
The competition announcement says: “To reduce the risk to troops and improve efficiency, the UK aims to develop autonomous systems for unmanned delivery of combat supplies, drawing on the rapid progress of the private sector in the development of delivery drones and automated deliveries.”
China has strengthened its surveillance network with birdlike small drones. The Chinese government’s “Dove” program has been building small drones that resemble birds. In the past few years, at least 30 military and government agencies have deployed these fake birds in five provinces, according to the report by The South China Morning Post.
These small drones take flight similar to how birds do so, fly up to the speed of 40 km/h (24.8 mph), and have a wingspan of 50 cm (19.6 in.). The Doves are equipped with high-definition cameras, flight-control systems, GPS antennas, and data links with satellite communication capability.
In another study, the Jouhou System Kougaku (JSK) Laboratory at the University of Tokyo unveiled the DRAGON drone. This drone is made up of a number of small drones and is capable of changing its shape in midair. Moreover, it can determine what shape to take based on the space in which it is navigating.
Armed Micro drones
These micro drones have also been weaponized. U.S. Army has purchased “Coyote” drones from Waltham, Mass.-based defense contractor Raytheon Co. They are expandable and capable of operating alone or in a swarm. The Coyotes are equipped with a compact fire-control radar that is capable of destroying small UAVs.
Raytheon said at the Farnborough Air Show in the U.K. last month that it began to roll out the Coyote Block 1B variants to the Army to meet an “urgent operational need” because of the increasing threat to ground troops posed by enemy UAVs. “We modified these vehicles to have small warheads to take down a quadcopter, for example, or other types of Class I or Class II UAVs,” said Thomas Bussing, Raytheon’s vice president for advanced missile systems.
Two Australian companies have signed an agreement to develop armed tactical micro-drone, the Cerberus UAV, with DefendTex, (an Australian based weapons research and development company) to provide the armament technology. The two Australian companies are Cyborg Dynamics and Skyborne Technologies who lately signed a partnership.
The micro-drone is able to provide direct fire support while remaining man portable, providing operators with a tactical edge on today’s battlefield.Cerberus GL has the ability to fire three 40mm grenades, 6 shotgun rounds at an enemy UAV or even an anti-vehicle rocket whilst performing ISR tasks before, during and after its fire mission, then return to the soldier for re-loading and a battery swap. All this in a package under 6 kilograms and with an endurance of over 15 minutes.
Cyborg Dynamics CEO and Army Reserves Infantry Platoon Commander, Stephen Bornstein provided valuable insight from the operator’s perspective saying “this UAV can engage light skinned vehicles, enemy UAV’s, provide direct fire support, new vantage points to use primary weapon systems and conduct battle damage assessments, and all at man portable size.”The strategic partnership will allow for the development of new gimbals for optics and fire control as well as enhanced payloads.
The global small drone market could reach $13.4 billion by 2023, according to Allied Market Research. Work on both general-purpose and military drones has gained traction.