The Black Hornet drone seems built for the fever swamps of the internet. Roughly the same weight and size as a sparrow, the Black Hornet’s body is shaped like a tiny helicopter, with a camera instead of a cockpit. It is real, used by military special forces, and last week FLIR Systems announced the latest iteration of the design: the Black Hornet 3.
“We are excited to bring this advanced Black Hornet 3 to our war fighters and first responders,” James Cannon, FLIR’s president and CEO, said in a released statement.
“With longer range and indoor flight capabilities, the latest generation Black Hornet provides full surveillance coverage continuity to the mission. The Black Hornet 3 is representative of FLIR’s new focus on providing full-solution technology, and we look forward to playing a role in helping modernize our military customers.”
FLIR prefers the term “personal reconnaissance system,” or PRS, for the miniature drones, adding yet another acronym into the endless alphabet soup of remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles and systems. Acronym stew aside, the Black Hornet is popular enough that FLIR notes it’s been fielded by at least 30 countries since it was introduced by Prox Dynamics.
Designs for the Black Hornet date back to 2008, and the first generation of the drone saw action with the British Army until it was retired last year. (FLIR acquired Prox Dynamics in 2016, and introduced a model with night vision in 2017.)
The Black Hornet 3 clocks in at just over an ounce in weight. It has a top speed of over 13 mph and a range of almost 1.25 miles, with a total flight time of up to 25 minutes. A new thermal sensor and camera offer better images, and new software allows the Hornet to stop at certain waypoints and scan 360 degrees around itself before continuing on. All the video it captures is sent to a tablet in the hands of the person controlling the Hornet, giving real-time information to the unit using the tiny scout. It can navigate by GPS or in GPS-denied environments, like inside buildings or caves.
The most interesting feature of the model 3 is what is yet to come: unlike previous versions, this one is modular. Most immediately, that means a squad can scout an area, return the drone, swap out the battery for a new, fully charged one, and send the drone back into action. For the future, it could mean different sensor payloads, all built to fit and serve a tiny, tiny body.
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.