In the spring of 2013, over drinks somewhere in Washington, a Marine officer candidate told me about an idea he had. He was getting ready for a wargame — a weekend in the field simulating a combat engagement — and he wanted to use his discretionary budget for the activity to buy a drone.
Now, the military has plenty of drones, from Global Hawks on down, but nothing currently in the inventory could match both the capability and the disposability he wanted. So he was going to buy a camera drone kit for less than $1,000, and try to field it in the wargame.
I never made it out to see how the drone faired, but five years later, adding a drone into a Marine squad is no longer just the stuff of daring candidates looking for an edge over their peers in friendly wargames. Last month, Marines in the California desert practiced with quadcopters of their own.
From USNI News:The Marine Corps is beginning to field the InstantEye to infantry units across the Fleet Marine Force in a program dubbed “Quads for Squads,” or Q4S as Marines call it, and endorsed by the commandant. Gen. Robert Neller wants every deploying squad — a unit with 11 to 14 Marines — to be equipped with an organic, small UAS capability. Later this month, Marines with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 5th Marine Regiment will receive and train with the quadcopters at its Camp Pendleton, Calif.-base, 2nd Lt. Sam Banks, a 1st Marine Division spokesman, told USNI News. “We’re just pushing it out at a much faster rate,” Banks said of the drone systems. “They’re going to all of the deploying battalions first.”
The InstantEye will hardly be the first quadcopter tested by the military, nor will it be the first small drone. Perhaps the most iconic drone carried by infantry is the RQ-11 Raven, a hand-tossed fixed-wing designed to break apart like LEGOs when it landed. The Ravens had a unit price of $35,000, and were sold with all the relevant equipment to operate a batch of three for $250,000. That’s bargain basement when compared to the price of other aircraft, but still pricey in the world of small drones.
To get scouting capabilities dirt cheap, the Marines and the Army have bought and tested commercial off-the-shelf quadcopters, like DJI Phantoms. These quadcopters typically run only a few hundred dollars, making them as cheap as a functional drone can get. The cost savings wasn’t worth the potential risk of the drones being built compromised, so citing cyber security concerns last summer, the U.S. Army ordered units to stop using drones from China-based manufacturer DJI.
The InstantEyes quadcopters, meanwhile, are built by InstantEye Robotics of Andover, Massachusetts. And while InstantEye’s announcent of a recent sale of 800 quadcopters to the Marine Corps didn’t include unit price for the drones, they were reported as costing around $1,000 in 2014. If the cost is similar, then it means that the Marines might finally have a squad-based aerial scout that matches or exceeds those of rivals in both capability and disposability.
And it means the Marines are now much closer to Commandant Neller’s vision of a drone in every squad.