In the corner of a booth, on the opposite side from the rocket launders and machine guns, behind the smaller ground robots, hung a Predator drone.
This Predator, the Predator AX-1, shares few characteristics with the plane-sized American machines that defined drone for many in in this century. Instead, the AX-1 has as much in common with its rocket launcher booth-mates. Debuting for the world at the IDEB Exposition in Bratislava earlier this month, the Predator AX-1 is a loitering munition, a drone carried by infantry and destined to end in a violent explosion.
The AX-1 weighs 22 pounds, of which 4.4 pounds is payload. That payload can be either a thermobaric warhead, which promotional materials highlight as effective against “soft-skinned and light-armored targets.” Should the expected targets be more armored, the AX-1 can instead use a HEAT warhead, designed for use against armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, and older tanks. These warheads are based on standard RPG-7V rounds; after all, what is distinctive about this miniature predator is not the kind of explosion if offers, but the body it uses to deliver that explosion.
The AX-1 flies at a speed of between 80 mph and 155 mph, with a cruising speed around 120 mph. The brochure lists the AX-1’s operational range at 2.5 miles, though other reports give it a range of 12 miles, with a maximum flight time of 20 minutes. Flight times of 20 minutes aren’t unheard of for drones (most all-electric commercial quadcopters can fly for about that), but it’s a short time for a loitering munition, some of which can fly for up to 6 hours.
The AX-1 is a more direct analog to the Switchblade “tactical missile system” developed by Aerovironment. What makes the difference between a slow-flying directed missile and a loitering munition that can’t even stay airborne for the duration of a sitcom episode? Branding, mostly.
Like the Switchblade, this little Predator can be launched from a tube, without any need for runway or special launching rail. Compel Industries, which together with Incoff Aerospace built the AX-1, claims that an operator can carry up to three of the drones in a lightweight container on their back, which at 66 pounds seems like a lot but possible fits in with other infantry load-outs that regularly reach 80 pounds and often go over 100.
What makes this category particularly compelling for militaries today and in the future is the synthesis of its parts combined with how, exactly, the machine is controlled. The material suggests it is piloted by first-person-view camera. It’s a way to get an explosion delivered without any other support units, as precisely as the human piloting it can control steer.
When we think of the future of drone warfare, we should picture, too, a world where infantry can launch guided missiles in drone-shaped bodies, where Predators don’t just soar above at 25,000 feet, but where other Predators launch from behind a hill and onto a rooftop a couple miles away.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.