Forget the Predator, Military Drones Are Getting Smaller

Look out for the little ones.

A British soldier releases Prox Dynamics' Black Hornet (Prox Dynamics)
airspacemag.com

Militaries around the world are putting drones directly in the hands of front-line soldiers, and the United States is leading the charge. Robust UAVs no longer have to be large and unwieldy, nor do they need specialized training to operate. The latest and smallest of these systems can be carried, launched, and controlled by a single person, and require less training than it takes to use a radio.

The Defense Department recently released this short video that offers a glimpse of battlefield drones that could provide immediate visual intelligence to soldiers, allowing them to see both friendly forces and enemies over the hill.

The first drone shown is the Prox Dynamics PD-100 PRS (Personal Reconnaissance System), a tiny helicopter (complete with tail rotor) just one inch wide and six and a quarter inches long. The PD-100 “Black Hornet”  can fly quietly for up to 25 minutes, indoors or outdoors, day or night, and can send real-time imagery, including infrared scans, to users just over a mile away. For longer missions it can “perch and stare” while the operator slews its sensors around. The Black Hornet takes less than half an hour to learn to operate. British forces used it in Afghanistan, notably to find snipers and groups of approaching insurgents.

The other drone in the video, the InstantEye Mk2 Gen3 by PSI Tactical Robotics, is an 11-ounce, 10-inch quadcopter that carries three cameras. Like the PD-100, it works in a range of environments, day and night. It also launches vertically, saving operators from having to expose themselves to potential enemy fire.

Not shown is Aerovironment’s Shrike VTOL, which also can be launched and operated by a single user without exposure. Aerovironment, well known for its RQ-11B “Raven” drone (which requires two users and has at times proven difficult to launch), also manufactures the “Switchblade.” This isn’t a drone in the sense that it doesn’t return to its launch point; Aerovironment calls it a “Tactical Missile System.” The Switchblade provides users with a real-time view of the battlefield from above, like other small drones. But once a target is identified, it flies directly into it and detonates a small charge. Special operations forces have carried along the Switchblade, but it’s not in use with regular forces yet. The special ops people love it: “We got some great video of the final seconds of some flights,” a SEAL contact told me, noting that despite its quiet flight profile, enemy targets often could hear the Switchblade just before impacting.

There are probably around 1,000 such drones operational with American forces today (including the Switchblade, which lowers the count by one each time it’s used), but that number is a rough guess. The users so far have been special operations forces, notably the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command, which means we probably won’t know the real numbers for a long time. But with the continued advancement of technology, and with continued feedback from users during training and actual combat, battlefield drones will continue to proliferate. One day they may be as common as radios and laser sights. 

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About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Flight of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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