Small Spy Drones to Expand Troops’ Eyes and Ears on Battlefield

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Over the last 13 years of war, the military has collected a large arsenal of unmanned aerial vehicles ranging from systems that weigh tens of thousands of pounds to ones that can fit in a soldier’s backpack or pocket.

It is these small systems — often weighing less than 15 pounds — that can be deployed quickly to fly over hills, peek past fences and look through trees as troops conduct missions.

Despite sliding defense budgets, the collection of this critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data will continue to be a priority for the armed services, experts told National Defense.

When it comes to small UAVs, the military requires ruggedness, said Col. Charles H. May, military deputy for U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts.

“It has got to hold up. And if it’s delicate it won’t,” May said. “A lot of these UAVs, they’re delicate. So they seem really whizz-bang and cool, and lo and behold, they’re not tough enough to make it to the field of operation because of the inherent rugged environment.”

Rough terrain in places such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan could prove challenging for many systems, May said.

“You don’t have a Home Depot or a Lowe’s or some sort of Ace Hardware around the corner or a RadioShack for that matter where you … might be able to find the repair piece that you are looking for,” he said.

Ultimately, NSRDEC wants systems that could increase soldiers’ situational awareness and protection on the battlefield, Jeff Sisto, an Army spokesman said.

“Here at Natick labs, we are working for the individual soldier. We are looking for ways … to augment the soldier’s eyes and ears on the ground,” he said.

The Army isn’t the only service looking into small drones to collect ISR data. In August, the Navy put out a request for information for both a nano and a small vertical take-off and landing unmanned aircraft system. The RFI said the nano system should weigh between five and 20 pounds.

The systems should be “capable of providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance during day and night operations and in all environmental conditions,” the RFI said.

It must be lightweight, ready to use and provide real-time full motion video through electro-optical and infrared sensors, the RFI said. Additionally, it must be man-portable, reusable and “rugged enough to survive in unimproved areas such as those containing rocks, uneven terrain, urban areas, forested areas or a maritime environment.”

One foreign supplier hoping to crack the U.S. defense market is Prox Dynamics, an Asker, Norway-based private UAV manufacturing company. It offers the PD-100 Black Hornet, a nano-drone that resembles a tiny helicopter that can quickly collect ISR on the fly.

The 18-gram UAV has an endurance of 25 minutes, a range of up to a mile and can fly in sustained winds up to 15 knots, said retired Norwegian Army Brig. Gen. Arne Skjaerpe, general manager of Prox Dynamics USA.

The Black Hornet comes equipped with three fixed-cameras capable of viewing 130 degrees, Skjaerpe said. Users can collect live video or snap photos via a radio link transmission back to a control unit.

“There is no data in the bird,” Skjaerpe said. “If it should crash [or] if it should be taken by somebody, there is nothing there, so operational security is taken care of.”

The drone is a part of an overall system that includes a control unit, two UAVs and a recharging station that also serves as a protective case for the aircraft.

The Black Hornet could fly a number of missions including ISR collection, compound clearance, target location and verification and after-action review, Skjaerpe said.

“This should be in the [squad’s] toolbox,” he said.

More than 1,000 units have been produced, Skjaerpe said. The British Army, which signed a contract in 2011 for a number of the systems, deployed the PD-100 to Afghanistan.

“It’s been in operational use with the British Army now for two years with very good feedback. The Brits are very clear that this system has saved lives and added to force protection [and] situational awareness,” Skjaerpe said.

The U.S. military is also evaluating the PD-100. In 2011, Prox Dynamics received a small test-and-evaluation award from NSRDEC. It received additional funding in 2013 to look at modifying the technology, said Michael Higdon, a media consultant for the company. Both awards together totaled about $3 million.

Prox Dynamics is continuing to improve the system, Skjaerpe said. Better cameras, longer battery life and more endurance are all on the list.

May said NSRDEC was continuing to evaluate the PD-100 under its cargo pocket intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance program.

“It’s an interesting piece of kit that … maybe down the road … becomes something that we could use,” May said. “It’s kind of like going from the horse and carriage to the Model-T.”

Sisto said the PD-100 could give soldiers a better “sense of what is around the next corner or over the next hill.”

In the future, large acquisition programs for small UAS will ebb, but there are still opportunities for procurement, said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based defense and aerospace market analysis firm.

The military will not only improve small systems by making modifications such as gimbaled payloads and better digitization, but will procure some additional craft to give troops more options, he said.

“Ultimately, the Army would like to create a family of systems,” Finnegan said. This could include 13-pound Pumas, 4-pound Ravens and even lighter systems. “This would enable … small units to have more flexibility in the type of UAVs they would use.”

Despite some progress, the development of nano-drones is still in the early stages, said Larry Dickerson, a senior defense analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut-based marketing consulting firm.

“[They] are coming along, but they’re still in their infancy. They’re still testing them. They are very limited in what they can do,” he said.

Companies still need to work out how to increase payload and the number of environments they can be used in. For example, small drones struggle with battery power when they operate in windy conditions, Dickerson said.

Additionally, they must be ruggedized.

“[The services] are very rough on all their toys. That’s why they’ve got to be made very durable,” he said. “These things are going to be in people’s rucksacks or some pouch on their overall gear. It’s going to get bounced around and used and abused.”

Dickerson predicted special operations forces could adopt nano-drones within this decade. By the 2030s, such technology could be in the hands of ground troops on a larger scale, he said.

Eventually, nano-drones could even be used to watch over an entire occupied city, he said.

“You can get to a point where you have these micro systems being dropped from airplanes … [then] they fly down and perch themselves all over a city, and eventually they give you an idea of everything that’s going on,” he said.

As long as there is a need to conduct surveillance on the battlefield, there will be a need for small UAS, said Steve Gitlin, AeroVironment’s vice president of marketing and communications.

Small UAS “do a very unique capability and that is putting the ability to collect information into the hands of the people who need it at that time and location. Larger unmanned aircraft systems are scarcer, are farther away, are much more expensive and are not always available to people on the front lines,” Gitlin said.

AeroVironment, a Monrovia, California-based UAV company, manufacturers some of the most ubiquitous small drones, including the Puma, Wasp and Raven. Gitlin called these platforms organic assets because ground troops can carry them with them. The three systems make up more than 85 percent of the entire Pentagon’s fleet of UAS, he noted.

“If they need to know what’s going on beyond the ridgeline, behind the wall, ahead of a convoy, this is the way they get that information,” he said.

Working alongside the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, AeroVironment also manufactured a nano-UAV in 2011 called the Hummingbird. Resembling the animal in appearance, and mimicking its flapping wings to fly, it can travel close to its target without arousing suspicion. It weighs 19 grams and has a 16-centimeter wingspan.

The Hummingbird is a technology demonstrator for now, but AeroVironment is pursuing opportunities where it could be turned into a product, though a finalized version may not resemble a bird, Gitlin said.

“As is the case with a lot of the innovation we produce, sometimes it takes quite a few years for a new idea to translate into a new product,” he said.

In September, AeroVironment announced it had received a firm fixed-price order from the Marine Corps of nearly $21.8 million for its RQ-12 Wasp AE small UAV. According to a company press release, the Wasps would be integrated into the service’s next generation family of small UAS.

Besides the military, Gitlin said he sees a burgeoning civilian market. Small UAVs such as the Hummingbird could have applications ranging from disaster response to agriculture, he said.
Foreign sales would also be a boon for UAV manufacturers, Dickerson said. Countries such as Israel may find such technology particularly useful, he noted.

“It has the type of environment that would really stimulate the use of the smaller technology systems just because there is a lot of urban combat … and, for a lack of a better word, anti-insurgency type of warfare,” Dickerson said.

Small systems could be a force multiplier for many units, he said.

Finnegan also sees increased opportunities for small UAS sales abroad.

“The market is shifting. The market is going to be less the U.S. military than it has been in the past,” Finnegan said. “It’s going to be increasingly international because you have a number of countries increasingly adopting these systems.”

Foreign nations could also use the systems for border patrol, he said.

Further, many countries — such as Australia, Canada and some European nations — offer more opportunities for commercial usage, he said.

“There’s been more progress to opening the airspace there than there has been in the United States,” he said.

Commercial use of small UAVs in the United States has been stifled by stringent Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Unless a commercial entity can obtain an exemption from the agency, it cannot fly a drone in domestic airspace. Recreational users, however, are free to fly their aircraft so long as they fly below 400 feet, remain within their sight and are not in restricted airspace.

Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the agency was mandated to integrate small unmanned aerial vehicles under 55 pounds into the domestic airspace by September 2015. It has since created several test sites where they are researching UAVs, but experts question whether the organization can meet its congressional deadline.

In September, the FAA granted regulatory exemptions to six aerial photo and video production companies, allowing them to begin filming footage for movies and television with drones in the domestic airspace.

In a statement, Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said he welcomed the FAA’s decision.

“The FAA’s announcement represents another important milestone in unlocking the commercial potential of UAS technology,” Toscano said. “With this decision, Hollywood will now be able to capture the unique perspectives of UAS closer to home.”

In a press release, the FAA said they were considering 40 other exemption requests from commercial entities.

Topics: C4ISR, Intelligence, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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