Military airplanes started as unarmed scouts in 1909. By 1911, pilot Lt. Giulio Gavotti, flying a plane for the Kingdom of Italy, decided to bring some grenades with him for a mission above Libya and then drop them near a Turkish camp target below. While Gavotti’s flight didn’t cause any casualties, it set the stage for subsequent rapid adaptations of a new form of flying scout into a new kind of flying attack.
Consider, then, the “Demon” aircraft, from Ukrainian dronemaker Matrix UAV. Taking an existing quadcopter model, the Demon modification attaches a rocket-propelled grenade to the fuselage, which makes it roughly the 21st-century equivalent of a satchel full of explosives stuffed into the cockpit.
Yuriy Kasyanov of Matrix UAV introduced the Demon drone in a public facebook post on Aug. 17. Kasyanov described it as a “shock multipurpose unmanned aerial vehicle” capable of carrying one or two RPGs of the RPG-22/26 family. Kasyanov also noted the drone can carry the RPG-7 grenade launcher, other small arms, or even a bomb weighing around 11 pounds.
In the same post, Kasyanov set out some operational roles for the Demon. Carrying a reusable weapon like a grenade launcher, the Demon is seen as a tool for ambush and precision strikes on armored vehicles, entrenched positions, anti-air equipment and other targets at a range of up to 6 miles, with a video feed fed to the operator through the kind of signal repeater that Matrix UAV has demonstrated on its Chimera drone. There’s also a one-way option for the Demon, where it takes a 15-pound payload of explosives and then crashes into a target up to 12 miles away, detonating like a missile.
With a hybrid engine and an explosive payload half the size, the Kasyanov projects a range of up to 55 miles for this drone, though that is an extraordinary amount of reach to take without some verification in testing first. (It would also turn drone attacks like the one in Venezuela from a potentially deadly novelty into a major security risk.)
Matrix UAV already boasts the Comandor drone, a gas-powered octocopter marketed as a tool for everything from firefighting to anti-tank weapon platform to battlefield delivery of medical supplies. And the Demon isn’t even the first “quadcopter, but with an RPG” on it that we’ve seen debuted in an Eastern European country this year.
In June, Belarus showed off a quadcopter where the engines were directly attached to an RPG-26. At the time, it seemed a scaled-down version of other, more expensive rocket-launching drones marketed to advanced militaries. Now, with the debut of the Demon prototype, this is a trend. Vintage Soviet rocket launchers, paired with cheap modern engines and advances in remote control, are elevating squad-level drones from mere scouts into deadly ambush weapons.
Drones like this are, for now, still closer to the hand-tossed grenades of Gavotti than they are to the destructive power of the bombers that emerged on the other side of the 1910s. Don’t expect it to remain that way for long, though, as drone use is evolving rapidly and Ukraine is already the site of fighting between forces with cheap drones on both sides.
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.