Giving front line soldiers their own “eyes in the sky” offers many benefits for armies. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones allow operators to observer targets hidden from view by buildings, hills or other terrain features. They also allow UAV operators to remain under cover and safe from enemy fire.
While small UAVs are now common place for observation missions, they are also increasingly being fitted with weapons to allow them to be rapidly strike at any targets they may discover.
There is now a spread of UAVs available for front line troops, which use a range of technologies to get them into the air and carry out their missions. The “drone in a backpack” now comes in many shapes and sizes. They are known a as mini or micro UAVs. They are usually controlled by small laptop computers or computer game-style controllers, via small radio antenna. Video imagery from the UAV can be downloaded and viewed in laptops or other handheld devices.
Most of these mini-drones are usually either small hand or rail launched systems that resemble remote control model aircraft. There are also rotary-wing systems can take off and land vertically. A new generation of very small UAVs are entering service, which can be held in a soldier’s hand and are used for very short range reconnaissance, such as scouting around the inside of buildings. Some of these are so small they have fast flapping wings similar to those of birds.
The arming of these UAVs is a logical conclusion but their small size makes it a significant aerodynamic challenge to load missiles and guns on small air vehicles. This has resulted in some companies experimenting in turning mini-UAVs into what are termed “loitering munitions” or “kamikaze drones”, which fly one way missions to their targets.
The AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven is one of the most widely-used hand-launched UAVs. It has an endurance of 90 minutes on rechargeable batteries. It can be carried by a single soldier along with other standard battle gear. Following the Afghanistan campaign in 2001–2002, the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) ordered 80 Ravens. Since then, the RQ-11B Raven B has become the official standard SUAS (Small Unmanned Aircraft System) for USSOCOM, US Army, US Marines, and several countries. As of early 2008, over 8000 Raven airframes have been shipped to customers worldwide. Ravens have been operational in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other undisclosed locations.
AeroVironment is now working on a newer version of the Pointer, named the "Puma", with greater endurance and payload. In addition, they have disclosed that they are in late development of a small lethal UAV.
EMT Aladin (German: Abbildende Luftgestützte Aufklärungsdrohne im Nächstbereich, airborne reconnaissance drone for close area imaging) is a small, man-portable light reconnaissance miniature UAV employed by the Bundeswehr (German Army). The UAV can be radio-controlled via a portable control station, or fly according to previously set GPS coordinates. It features a day and night camera and video-relay. It can be transported in two suitcases, which contain the disassembled drone, and a backpack with the control station. The aircraft can be assembled and disassembled without tools in the field within five minutes. The aircraft can be launched by hand or with a bungee catapult.
Skydio X2D is a new reconnaissance drone manufactured by Skydio, a leading autonomous flight technology provider based in the US. It is intended to meet the short-range reconnaissance (SRR) requirements of the US Army.
The Skydio X2D drone is capable of performing a range of military missions including reconnaissance, search and rescue (SAR), and patrol. It uses unmatched artificial intelligence (AI) to transform every operator into an expert pilot.
Skydio was selected as trusted UAV supplier by the US Federal Government as part of Defense Innovation Unit’s (DIU) Blue sUAS Project in August 2020.
Skydio X2D is a lightweight drone with foldable arms, allowing easy pack and go transportation. The drone has a length of 0.38 metre, width of 0.30 metre and height of 0.10 metre. It approximately weighs 1.3 kilogram and can carry custom payloads of up to 150 grams.
Turkey’s Baykar Machine Inc offers the Bayraktar Mini UAV system, which has a 1.2 metre length and 2 metre wing span. It has been operational since 2007 with Turkish Armed Forces, can be hand launched and land on its body or through a parachute deployment. It has a five kilogram maximum takeoff weight and can reach up to a 95 km/hour airspeed, as well as a flight envelope of 12,000 feet. Integrated with its own avionics and payload systems, it has an endurance of 1 to 1.5 hours. Bayraktar Mini UAV has the longest range in its class with 15 kilometre guaranteed regardless of the weather.
The Interspect UAS B 3.1 octocopter is a photographic platform that relys on rotory wing technology. The first variant, the UAS B 1.1 octocopter prototype, first flew on 10 April 2011. The third variant is able to fly 12 minutes with a three kilogram loading and has a removable 3D photogrammetry camera with humidity meter and other instruments. The octocopter's diameter is 1165 mm.
An increasing number of loitering numbers are on the market and the Ukrainian
ST-35 Silent Thunder is typical of these deadly products. It is being developed by Athlon Avia, a Ukraine-based producer of unmanned aircraft systems. The precision-guided weapon system will be able to destroy the enemy targets with minimal risk to people and infrastructure around the targets. It will be used to target radar stations, command posts, as well as command and control platforms. It will have the capability of defeating particularly important and valuable targets in closed positions.
Athlon Avia unveiled the new model of single-use drone in October 2019. The company concluded the initial series of guided flight trials in March 2020. The loitering munition was evaluated at different modes during the next stage of testing. The next phase of development will involve the testing of warhead in late-2020.
ST-35 Silent Thunder features a multi-copter design integrating a transponder and a single-use munition. The loitering munition incorporates X-layout biplane scheme which ensures accuracy during horizontal flight and vertical trajectory for precision target attack. The probability of loitering munition hitting the target is approximately 95%, while circular deviation is up to 3 metre
The fast moving target ensures quiet and unnoticeable operation. It can be operated in silent mode and at an altitude of 1,200 metre, making it a difficult target to detect. The ST-35 Silent Thunder loitering weapon will have a cruise speed of 120km/h. It will have an operational range of approximately 40 kilometres. The loitering munition can be deployed in 15 to 20 minutes. It can remain airborne for up to 60 minutes.
Songar is a new armed drone system designed and manufactured by Asisguard a part of Asis Electronics and Information Systems, to serve as a force-multiplier for low-intensity conflicts.
The UAV is capable of performing critical tasks during defence operations conducted by the security forces. It is the first domestic armed drone system to be operated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and is Turkey’s first indigenous drone armed with a machine gun. The aerial drone has a width of 145cm from rotor to rotor and height of 70cm. It has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 45 kilograms. The portable unmanned aerial system (UAS) can be easily deployed by infantry units and small security elements. It is capable of conducting operations during day and night.
Songar is equipped with advanced features such as drone return-home on link-loss, in-flight mission change, autonomous and remote-control modes. It also has the capability to perform visual battle damage assessments.
The drone system’s machine gun can fire NATO class 5.56x45mm rounds. It has a maximum ammunition load capacity of 200 rounds and can also support single and 15-round burst modes.
The gun has the capability to perform fully autonomous missions with multi-layered safety, requiring final consent from the operator for firing. The ammunition box of the drone can be quickly changed and reloaded by the operator for uninterrupted mission.
Songar’s maximum operational range of the unmanned vehicle is three kilometres can hit targets within a 15cm area from a distance of 200 metre. The drone can ascend to an altitude of up to 2,800 metre at mean sea level and 400 metre above ground level.
A wide range of mini UAV products are now on the international market, offering armies around the world some very powerful capabilities. Technology is advancing at such a fast rate that new products are emerging every couple of months. This is a market segment that is not standing still.