The first grenades dropped from drones were an improvised experiment. Like the haphazard scouts of the 1910s who first chucked bombs out of cockpits onto foes below, the quadcopter grenade bombers were hardly a standardized tool or mass-produced weapon. And like those early aeronaut grenadiers, hobbyist quadcopters dropping shuttlecock-stabilized grenades were more potential hazard than precision threat. It took time, but turning quadcopters into grenade-lobbing bombers is now no longer the sole domain of insurgent forces and improvised weapons.
One new way to weaponize smaller drones is a dedicated grenade launcher. The grenade launchers were part of the International Defence Exhibition & Conference currently happening in the United Arab Emirates. Created as part of a collaboration between UAE’s International Golden Group and South Africa’s Rippel Effect Systems, the DLP3 and DLP6 are 40mm grenade launchers designed to be mounted on drones, with three and six barrels, respectively. These launcher models can carry as many rounds of lethal or less-lethal ammunition as each has barrels.
This is hardly the first attempt to arm smaller drones. The Velvet Wasp, for example, is a specially designed missile-toting octocopter that debuted at the Dubai airshow in 2017, marketed to special forces and priced to match. (Vaguely in the same category is the Belarusian drone design that essentially puts rotors on an existing rocket launcher.)
There’s also the recent and elaborate history of turning everything from hobbyist drones to scratch-built drones into explosive weapons by insurgent forces and would-be assassins, though improvised weapons lack the accuracy desired in such a tool and come with a whole host of vulnerabilities. And there’s the entire field of “kamikaze drones,” or infantry-portable light munitions that fly like drones and strike like missiles.
What makes the DLP3 & DLP6 different is that the scale is both less and more than a drone custom-designed as a weapon. It’s a payload that can go on existing drones, however IGG and Rippel Effect Systems define “light UAV.” That flexibility means militaries (and, potentially, law enforcement) can figure out which of their existing craft could be adapted to a grenade-launching role. The launchers have already caught the eye of some skeptical human rights organizations, and the ability to add even less-lethal munitions to what was previously just a surveillance platform can easily change the way smaller drones are deployed.
It also opens the possibility, however slim, that drones could be outfitted with 40mm grenade launchers so that they may carry anti-drone net grenades. Like the pistols and grenades of those early 19th-century pilots a century ago, the tools of air-to-ground attack may end up as air-to-air weapons.
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.