Magazine article National Defense

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

Magazine article National Defense

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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