Large UAVs, such as Global Hawk, General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and predecessor MQ-1 Predator have already become become indispensable to modern militaries in providing intelligence, near-real time reconnaissance and surveillance to commanders, and offering warfighters greater battlespace awareness. They have proven effective in electronic combat support, battle damage assessment and even in national security operations like border surveillance, low intensity conflict and guerilla / terrorist warfare.
US military as part of a new Army program “Soldier Borne Sensors” plans to deploy tiny pocket-sized drones to the battlefield. These sensors will come in the form of that can be deployed in seconds to survey the surrounding area. U.S. Marine Corps special operations teams are already started using modified Black Hornet by 2015. The Black Hornet Nano is a military micro unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by Prox Dynamics AS of Norway, and in use by the Norwegian and British Army. Prox Dynamics delivered a PD-100, an upgraded version of black Hornet with enhancements like reconfiguring the data-link, giving it night vision, and improving navigational capability. In December 2016, Prox Dynamics was acquired by FLIR Systems in a deal worth US$134M.
In July 2020, Pro-regime social accounts claimed that Syrian troops recovered the Black Hornet near the town of Tal Tamr in the country’s northeastern Al Hasakah Governorate, which borders Turkey to the north and Iraq to the south. It’s not clear who was operating the drone in Syria before the Syrian troops captured it, but last year the U.S. Army began issuing Black Hornet 3s to various units.
Militaries are now employing Micro, Mini & Nano UAVs into their operations. Black Hornet micro UAV have been employed in Afganistan by UK’s soldiers to fly into enemy territory and take video and still images before returning to the operator. Designed to blend in with the muddy grey walls in Afghanistan, and capable of flying for 20 minutes on quiet electric motors, it has been used to look around corners or over walls and other obstacles to identify any hidden dangers and enemy positions.
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 allowing troops to spy on potential threats to military personnel by offering intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support during critical mission operations.
The Australian Army (AA) will soon roll out the PD-100 Black Hornet Personal Reconnaissance System (PRS) across one of its brigades in Brisbane, the Department of Defence (DoD) in Canberra announced. “UASs are a game-changer for the army, providing enhanced situational awareness for better mission execution for Australian soldiers,” said the brigadier, adding that the rollout of these micro UASs to AA soldiers is an “exciting example of adopting tactical robotic technology”. It was developed initially in Norway by Prox Dynamics AS, whom were acquired by FLIR in 2016 for £134m.
Nano drones have become a major military tool over the past few years, and the most recent announcement (June 2020) of FLIR Systems being awarded an additional $20.6 million contract for their Black Hornet 3 Personal Reconnaissance Systems (PRS) by the U.S. Army is one big example of that. FLIR Systems Inc. will supply the US Army with its next-generation nano drone, the company recently announced. This extremely light and nearly silent drone can fly up to 25 minutes, and provide many military advantages in combat. With this second contract, FLIR Systems will be providing the service with additional miniature reconnaissance drones as part of the ongoing soldier-borne sensor program, National Defense reports.
Originally, FLIR Systems was awarded a $39.7 million contract with the service in January 2019 to supply the Black Hornet 3s. Those systems are currently being delivered for fielding as part of the Soldier Borne Sensor program. Flir said the army has signed up to use the Black Hornet version 3, which it says has the ability to navigate GPD-denied environments, which allows the drone to maintain situational awareness. It includes threat detection and surveillance ‘no matter where the mission takes them’.
The British army has been using the device for about a year and it has reportedly gone down well with the troops. ‘It allows them to do things they couldn’t do before,’ said Prior. ‘If I was a grunt on the frontline and my platoon sergeant said “that house over there, we’re going to kick the door down and see who’s inside”, instead I could fly my UAV over the compound and have a look around first just to see if anyone’s waiting for me.’
In addition to the U.S. Army, the Australian, French, Canadian and Norwegian militaries will also be equipped with the Black Hornet 3, Aguirre said. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, along with 30 other countries have used Black Hornet variants in the past, he added.
Micro and Nano UAVs
US Military categorizes Micro and Mini as Group 1: Soldier Portable Recon drones. These have Weight up to 20 pounds, Operating Altitude of 1,200 feet, and Speeds of 100 kts. Nano drones are the smallest and they usually have the same dimensions as insects. 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.
Engineers have been talking about MAVs or Nano Air Vehicles for more than decade but there were many challenges to be overcome. Aerodynamic design challenges for NAVs are driven by a combination of low Reynolds number physics (<15,000) and the requirement for a multi-functional platform structure. Propulsion and energy storage systems for NAVs will require a highly efficient power source with sufficient energy and power density to fly and execute relevant missions. There was technical challenge is to integrate navigation, guidance and control onto a single chip to meet the restrictive size, weight and power requirements . Furthermore, if NAVs are required to operate autonomously and in “swarms” then the challenge is made even greater due to the much larger processing and sensory requirements these operations entail William A. Davis, Major, USAF in “Nano Air Vehicles, a Technology Forecast”
But recent improvements in micro-processors, sensors, batteries and wireless communication units mean that the technology is now becoming more practical and affordable. ‘People can do things now that they couldn’t foresee even five to 10 years ago,’ said Dr Stephen Prior, a UAV specialist from the University of Southampton. ‘Microprocessors are becoming cheaper, faster and more capable, and the technology from the remote-control world is starting to become pervasive and affordable.’
Military requirements of employing Micro and Nano UAVs for its squads
Until the dawn of military aviation a century ago, commanders always wanted to know what lay beyond distant hills or just over the horizon. The infantry squad of today has the more modest requirement of wanting to know what might be lurking behind a nearby wall or terrain ridge, or in the case of urban operations what might be lurking around the next street corner.
Since tactical air assets may not be able to provide a timely answer, there is a requirement for lightweight and rapidly-deployable reconnaissance systems. The goals of short-range reconnaissance are to determine the location, strength, and potential tactical weaknesses of enemy forces – information needed in order to determine a suitable course-of-action. Current larger UAVs are of infantry squads, so getting coverage of the local combat area could take more time than is available to front-line soldiers during a fast-evolving tactical situation.
These Mico & nano UAVs can also actively assist the platoon in tactical operations, they can guard key vulnerability points while the team is carrying out the raids. This shall also allow reducing the manpower required for such operations.
The relevance of this technology to future warfare is limitless. In the future it would be possible for army to send a team of micro-UAVs to the area of conflict. The team will search the area for targets collectively, able to track the threats and when commanded can fly near them and detonate a small fragmentation charge stored inside them. Such a capability shall drastically reduce the dangers of urban warfare.
The micro-UAVs shall also be expandable, so it does not matter if a few of them are lost in the mission due to enemy fire or malfunction. These micro-UAVs shall create a great psychological fear in the mind of the enemy. These killer robots could sneak through their windows; door openings etc. and kill them when they are sleeping.
Even in counter terrorism operations, these UAVs could go inside the hotel building and then search for terrorists and hostages in the rooms and stairways and then transmit this intelligence through real time video. They could also able to attack terrorists by surprise when they come within their lethal range. This is much better than direct firing from a distance, which incidentally also give away shooter’s position and allow the terrorists to change positions
Although the Army is seeking a mini-drone for use by individual squads through the Soldier Borne Sensors (SBS) program, the individually handmade Black Hornet is seen as too expensive for large-scale deployment, with a unit costing as much as US$190,000.
“The only problem we’d have with a capability like that is the Black Hornet is individually handmade,” Phil Cheatum, deputy branch chief of electronics and special developments at MCoE said. “When you’re talking about individually handmade, you’re talking about an expensive piece of equipment.”
The Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, has developed preliminary set of requirements and plans to go back-and-forth with industry on what already exists or could become quickly available.
- Max weight of 150 grams: The device should weigh less than a third of a pound and ideally fit into a cargo pocket to avoid adding any additional burden to soldiers already loaded down with gear.
- Deployable within 60 seconds: Soldiers should be able to get it in the air quickly.
- A 15-minute flight time: The Army needs the SBS to stay in the air long enough to capture relevant information and, ideally, return to its operator.
- Capable camera: Cheatum said it should be able to detect a human-sized object within 50 to 75 feet with “90 percent probability.” The camera will provide soldiers a real-time feed.
- Wind tolerance of 10 to 15 knots: While such a small UAS likely won’t fly in rough conditions, Cheatum said the SBS should be able to operate in light winds.
- Range of 500 to 1,200 meters: With line of sight, the drone should be operable from a reasonable distance, with the ability to bring it home after gathering the intel.
Ideally, what the front-line soldier needs is a tiny hand-launched UAV, and this has led to the development of ever-smaller and lighter designs. Many larger models are powered by a small piston engine, but the smaller hand-launched examples use electric motors.
“Commanders and Soldiers must have the capability to employ, manage and defend against individual, integrated collections, teams or swarms of robots that can act under human control, independently or collaboratively,” US Army’s Network strategy for 2025-2040: Dynamic Transport, Computing and Networked Edge capability. “Robotics will become a critical element of an agile, dynamic and mobile network that will move and fight with the Soldier as part of the unit’s network and operational infrastructure, providing connectivity and continuity within and across all elements.”
Norwegian and British Army’s Black Hornet Nano
Nano drones have become a major military tool over the past few years, and the most recent announcement of FLIR Systems being awarded an additional $20.6 million contract for their Black Hornet 3 Personal Reconnaissance Systems (PRS) by the U.S. Army is one big example of that. The Black Hornet is connected to the operator with a digital data-link and GPS. Images are displayed on a small handheld terminal, which can be used by the operator to control the UAV. The Black Hornet is launched from a small box that can be strapped to a utility belt, which also stores transmitted data so a captured drone won’t reveal anything it recorded. Operators can steer the UAV or set waypoints for it to fly itself.
The unit measures around 10 × 2.5 cm (4 × 1 in) and provides troops on the ground with local situational awareness. They are small enough to fit in one hand and weigh just over half an ounce (16 g, including batteries). The UAV is equipped with a camera, which gives the operator full-motion video and still images.
They were developed as part of a £20 million contract for 160 units with Marlborough Communications Ltd. An operator can be trained to operate the Black Hornet in as little as 20 minutes. The air vehicle has three cameras; one looking forward, one looking straight down, and one pointing downward at 45 degrees. A Black Hornet package contains two helicopters, and since a 90-percent charge is reached in 20-25 minutes, the same as its hovering time, when one needs to be recharged the other is ready to fly. Top speed is 11 mph (18 km/h).
Operating in real-world conditions — for an aircraft that weighs little more than AA battery — is no mean feat. Not only are the challenges of environmental conditions such as wind and dust magnified, but the aerodynamic challenges are quite different. ‘As you scale down, the air becomes thicker basically and it becomes much more of a challenge in terms of aerodynamic surfaces. The degree of complexity is multiplied,’ said Prior.
Black Hornet 3
The first generation of the Black Hornet system was launched in 2011. The technology has evolved since then, he noted. The Black Hornet 3 will offer improved speed and range, and the ability to operate in GPS-denied environments, according to FLIR.
The BLACK HORNET III air vehicle is 166 mm long and a total weight of 33 g. It has a two-bladed main rotor or 123 mm diameter, and a two-bladed tail rotor mounted at the end of a slim tailboom. It has a ceiling of more than 1,000 m, and an endurance of 20 minutes. Two alternative payloads are available – one for day use and combining two EO cameras, and a night configuration with sensor-fused imagery from one EO camera and one thermal imager. The system can fly at speeds up to 21 kilometers per hour for up to 2 kilometers.
Like the PD-100, BLACK HORNET III uses a joystick-based control unit and a separate display. The air vehicle can be flown under manual control using imagery from the on-board sensors, or guided by GPS along a pre-programmed route. The original PD-100 version could sometimes lose its radio link and/or GPS signal when operating in urban conditions, but the BLACK HORNET III version is designed to operate in GPS-denied conditions such as the interior of buildings. The air vehicle will fly a return-to-base route once its mission has been completed, or if it loses datalink connectively.
Soldiers are “looking for a covert, safe and immediately available situational awareness tool” that they can carry easily and use at the squad level, Aguirre said. “It’s so small that the enemy probably won’t see it and you’ll see the enemy before they see you,” he added.
Still, the firm said the Black Hornet 3 is faster than before, flying two kilometers as fast as 21 kilometers an hour. The device also has sharp image processing, thanks to a thermal microcamera and a visible sensor to create greater image clarity. It can gather intelligence and provide surveillance in a variety of environments, such as over hills, around buildings, or in areas of dense smoke using a thermal micro camera. The equipment offers a way for troops to see what is in areas that may not be safely accessible, Aguirre said.
A Vehicle Reconnaissance System variant mounts an array of four launch containers (known as ‘cassettes’) for air vehicles. The system can control one or two air vehicles simultaneously, and integrate these into a battlefield management system. FLIR Systems plans a developed version that would allow the air vehicle to return to its launch cassette at the end of the mission, so that it can be recharged for further use. BLACK HORNET has now been ordered by around 30 countries. Perhaps the biggest problem this system faces is its cost. When the UK ordered a batch of 160 BLACK HORNET systems in 2013, the pricetag was £20M.
However, the system is not only for combat use, he noted. It can also be employed by first responders such as paramedics, police and firefighters. Using a thermal micro camera, the Black Hornet 3 is capable of locating bodies in smoke, as well as the origin of fires. It can also be used to detect people in difficult terrain, he said.
“We’ve seen some … fire fighters deploying these small unmanned helicopters immediately at arrival of the scene, and they are able find people in buildings or the surroundings [and] evacuate them immediately,” said Aguirre. Firefighters in Norway have already had success using FLIR cameras’ thermal capabilities, he noted.
The nano drone also has law enforcement applications, he said. “The whole idea when we started up this company is that we believed sometime in the future when the market is ready, and the people have adapted to the technology, each and every police car would have a tool like this,” Aguirre said.
Snipe Snipe Nano Quadrotor
As one of AeroVironment’s newest UAVs, the Snipe Nano weighs 140 grams (4.9 ounces, is equipped with two replaceable batteries that provide a total airtime of over 30 minutes without requiring any assembly by the user. The Snipe can be safely controlled at a distance of 1 km, thereby allowing soldiers to quickly assess potentially hostile situations. AeroVironment designed the Snipe for “close-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions” and most importantly for those who might use it in theatre, it can be in the air within 60 seconds.
With its operation controlled by an intuitive touch screen tablet, Snipe is equipped with both an electro-optical (EO) and infrared (IR) camera which are positioned in a built-in tilting mechanism. that allows for its ability to . Once in the air, the Snipe can record or relay real-time hi-res video successfully during day and night missions to the soldier’s control unit around the clock . The Snipe has integrated UHF radio for non-line-of-sight operation and the software-defined radio (SDR) means that Snipe can be sold commercially, beyond being just a defense supplier.
AeroVironment says the tiny quadcopter is both stable in strong winds (15 mph with gusts up to 20 mph) and very quiet, meaning that it can be deployed to hover and stare from relatively close range with great stealth. It is flown by a standard, ruggedized (MIL-STD 810) touch screen controller and if it loses its radio link, it returns to its operator automatically.
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