Military Drones are Changing the Defense Sector Landscape
Militaries around the world understand the importance of preparing for the battlefield of the future.
History is full of examples in which large military forces were defeated by smaller forces equipped with new technology and tactics. In many of these cases, the winning technology was even ignored or disregarded by the losing side, as their military leaders focused only on older, more familiar techniques and equipment.
As militaries today search for new and better ways to accomplish their missions, one such technology is emerging as a winner: drones.
Here’s a look at how drones are evolving the battlefield.
Drones for Surveillance, a Big Asset
Drones are an excellent platform for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. While many ISR assets are available to countries with large military forces, these tools are rarely accessible to the average soldier with boots on the ground.
Large-scale drones, such as Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, have already proven to offer significant advantages on the modern battlefield. Capable of high-altitude flight for over 30 hours, Global Hawk is designed to gather near-real-time, high-resolution imagery of large areas in all types of weather – day or night.
These, along with other UAVS, are typically used for planning purposes or unique operations featuring specialized teams.
As accurate and effective as these large drones are, their size and high cost makes it prohibitive to equip single soldiers or even squads. However, drone solutions have emerged for these situations as well.
Small and Mighty
Military planners have long imagined a battlefield where soldiers at every level can gather real-time intelligence at the micro-level. With advances in drone development, that dream is becoming reality.
Small-scale drones have been employed for several years, initially limited to larger groups or special forces.
Recently however, militaries worldwide are beginning to tap into the power of drones at the squad or smaller level. As technology improves, increased funding is resulting in fielding more and more small drones.
With the adoption of small-scale drones, tremendous potential exists for these smaller units.
For the first time, squads (approximately twelve individuals) or even fire teams (approximately four individuals) can have their own ISR platform.
One of the more recent examples of small UAV usage was announced in February 2021.
This small drone – approximately 5 inches long— is launched from a 40mm grenade launcher, a standard weapon system used by militaries across the globe.
Once launched, the Drone40 takes flight, providing accurate real-time data. Additionally, Drone40 has a modular payload system, allowing soldiers in the field to choose between ISR, smoke or flash grenades, laser target designators, or even a small explosive charge.
According to DefendTex, the Drone40 also comes with swarming capabilities, and boasts a range of up to 12 miles. This makes it ideal for long-range target engagement.
The Drone40 gives British soldiers the power to collect information quickly and, if needed, engage targets. Using drones, all of this can be done without placing friendly soldiers in harm’s way.
The Drone40 is an excellent example of why policymakers and high-ranking military officials are so interested in small UAS technology.
FLIR’s Black Hornet
One of the smallest drones to hit the battlefield is FLIR’s Black Hornet.
As FLIR states, “the Black Hornet equips the non-specialist dismounted soldier with immediate covert situational awareness. Game-changing EO and IR technology bridges the gap between aerial and ground-based sensors. Extremely light, nearly silent, and with a flight time up to 25 minutes, the combat-proven, pocket-sized Black Hornet PRS transmits live video and HD still images back to the operator.”
Soldiers typically carry two Black Hornets at a time, giving every fire team the information needed to accomplish their mission safely.
The United States Army was so impressed with the Black Hornet, that in 2019 they placed an order for the mini-UAVs valued at $39.7 million. Only a year later, in 2020, they placed a second order worth another $20.6 million.
The U.S. Army now has over 9,000 Black Hornets.
Empowering Future Growth
Individual platforms like the Drone40 are often made possible by broader programs designed to fund innovation for military applications.
In the United States, the Blue sUAS program is one such program. In an effort to strengthen the military by adopting civilian commercial technology, the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) started the Blue sUAS program in August 2020.
Since beginning the program, the DIU has approved several American-made commercial drones for use by the military and Federal Government.
The government has awarded millions of dollars to several companies, allowing continued research for even more specialized, battlefield-capable drone systems.
Now, it’s no longer science fiction to imagine wars fought with every combatant carrying a small drone.
The expanding use of small UAVs can save lives on both sides of an engagement. Not only that, but government-backed research will bleed over into commercial markets.
As UAV technology continues to advance, it’s becoming apparent that drones will continue to reshape how militaries operate for years to come.