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Future of drones is small and cheap

May 12, 2017 (Photo Credit: AeroVironment)
Intelligence might be one of if not the most coveted asset for commanders of all stripes. While combatant commanders and other strategic leaders are always in need of more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, so is the case for field commanders on the ground with small units. As such, the desire for micro or nano drones has increased immensely.

The size of unmanned aerial systems has continued to decrease. “Overall, small is the future,” Peter Singer, strategist and senior fellow at the New America think tank, told C4ISRNET.

These micro drones, many of which are so small they can fit in the palm of one’s hand and weigh as large as 20 pounds, provide unique ISR capabilities for squads on the ground.

Just this week, drone manufacturer AeroVironment unveiled the Snipe Nano Quad, a micro quadcopter weighing 5 ounces and capable of attaining speeds of 20 mph. AeroVironment said it delivered 20 of these systems to a government customer, who is reportedly the U.S. Army, but the company did not say. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Snipe enables operators to spring into action quickly,” Kirk Flittie, AeroVironment vice president and general manager of its UAS business segment, said in a news release. “No assembly is required for the five-ounce (140-gram) nano-UAS, which is designed to be worn by its operator so it can be deployed in less than a minute.”

The system is capable of relaying high-resolution images and real-time video, in both daylight and darkness, controlled by an application on a ruggedized touch-screen controller, the company said.

The desire for smaller systems, for which the Army has issued industry solicitations in the past for such devices, is surely related to the projection by many military leaders that the battlefields of future wars will occur in dense, complex urban environments.

“It’s highly probable that the military forces armed conflict will occur in highly dense urban complex terrain, physical terrain,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in a May 4 address, noting that by 2050, the global population is slated to reach 8 billion people, of which 85-90 percent will live in highly dense, complex urban areas.

Moreover, Milley discussed megacities, defined as cities with populations of more than 10 million people — Seoul, South Korea; Tokyo, Japan; and Mexico City, for example. Today there are 10 to 15 of these cities, while in 2050 the number is expected to reach 50.

Capability goals

Similarly, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, said during a conference in September 2016 that with this urbanization, the force will need a swarming capability — something unmanned and small to be able to perform ISR in these urban environments.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy, or FLA, program has sought to devise systems that can operate in these dense urban environments, which not only include operations between city blocks, but the cramped, multistory buildings themselves.

First announced in late December 2014, FLA is designed to enable UAS to operate autonomously in highly cluttered urban environments at high speeds, much like the flight of a bird or insect. DARPA’s hope is that the program will engender new capabilities to provide soldiers eyes on highly cluttered urban environments that previous systems could not traverse, such as inside structurally damaged buildings. Similar systems can allow assaulting soldiers with insights around corners and through stairwells prior to advancing.

Other roles for these and slightly larger systems, such as Group 1 quadcopters, could be a leader-follower type of capability. In fact, Paul Scharre would like to see a cloud of drones surrounding a formation as it patrols through a city on all angles looking for possible threats. The senior fellow and director of the Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security spoke to C4ISRNET about the technology. The goal would be for these systems to do this autonomously and cooperatively without human intervention, then alert humans when threats are detected.

While challenges persist with nano devices — such as the hummingbird-sized UAS, in that they might be too small to carry desired payloads or computer processors to execute autonomy — Scharre said the underlying technology for all this is not far off. If units just want to peer around a corner like a little periscope, he said, that is very doable today.

However, realizing the majority of these capabilities might be further down the road than expected. Singer, who co-authored “Ghost Fleet,” a book about future warfare, said this depends on one’s level of expectation. Some systems could be used now, but there might be a high attrition rate; many might get lost or won’t be well integrated into command and control architecture; and most are civilian grade, not hardened for military use. Inversely, he noted that the Islamic State group is using commercial drones in Mosul for ISR and strike. While not as effective as U.S. systems, they offer a previously unrealized capability.

An 'instant visual'

The Army has reevaluated how it conducts its small UAS training, even opening up a first-of-its-kind multi-domain training lane at Fort Riley, Kansas. "We want capable UAS operators who get good training, who know how to first operate the RQ-11 Raven and the RQ-20 Puma, which are very good systems but there’s some complexity to them,” Chief Warrant Officer 4 Sarah Good said in a recent interview with C4ISRNET.  “We want to add in the quadcopters, then add in smaller micro-sized elements."

From an operational perspective, these small UAS assets could be used either to gain intelligence prior to moving in on a target or during operations.

The main reason they believe in building up the small assets, according to Good, is to get at the ISR gap at lower echelons. With these systems, units have an operator that knows exactly what’s going on in the battlefield. It allows them to get an “instant visual of what’s going on,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Samuel Kleinbeck, who is also with 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.

According to Singer, one of the frustrations with large systems is there’s not enough of them to go around. Commanders often have to call back for support, whereas with a small system they have control of it.

Acknowledging the duality that the world’s population is gravitating toward urban environments and the Marine Corps will unlikely grow in size, Col. James Jenkins, director of science and technology for the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, said during an October presentation that the service is looking at unmanned systems to take advantage or leverage current abilities in urban environments.

He linked one urban challenge to the need for a three-dimensional capability. Within urban environments, “now that I’ve got to climb stairs, climb elevator shafts, go down into parking garages, anything like that,” he said, “I’ve added a … layer of complexity to what I’m asking that unmanned system to do.”

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller has previously offered that every infantry squad could have its own small UAS. Neller also directed the procurement of four battalions’ worth of small Group 1 UAS, which, while slightly larger than micro systems, is an indication that units require more closely held ISR assets.

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