The sparrow is a drone that lives in a box. The box is a base that can house the drone. Both the drone and the box are connected to the cloud. As pitched at an operational experiment in Quantico, Virginia, in March 2019, the sparrow, box and cloud unit produced by Percepto could be an asset for the Department of Homeland Security, the Army and others. So what, exactly, could the military do with a drone in a box?
First, you put the drone in the box.
The box — formally, the “Percepto base” — weighs over 700 lbs and is roughly five feet long, wide and tall when closed around the drone. It is, in a way, an airbase of one, complete with hangar and charging station for the sparrow drone. Percepto boasts that the base “is what enables the Sparrow to function entirely autonomously without the need for human involvement or intervention,” allowing the drone to fly from the box without close human tending. For agencies that want to increase drone coverage in, say, largely inhospitable stretches of desert or hard to reach outposts, a drone in a box becomes the forward deployed outpost or the border fort. An autonomous block house a robot ready to patrol frontiers longstanding or newly established.
Then, you connect the box to the cloud.
When the drone lands back in the base, it uploads its data to that base. Operators can then access the base, a little data repository for the missions of one drone, through the could management system. Remotely, the operator can then plan missions and patrols for a whole fleet of drones flying from boxes.
Next, make the drone perform missions.
At the heart of this system is the Sparrow drone, which is listed as having a flight time of up to 33 minutes and a recharging time of 40 minutes. The sparrow has a maximum range of 10 miles for round-trip flights, and a top speed of 40 mph. Its camera is billed as providing day and night thermal vision, and the airframe is built to work in heavy rain, snow and dust conditions.
In the exercise at Quantico, Percepto participated with “one system that is capable of conducting dozens of daily aerial missions,” according to a company spokesman. Those missions include everything from “human/car detection and tracking” to “gas/fire detection.” Military mission sets are billed as autonomous patrol for base security, intruder detection, and providing continuous scanning of an area autonomously during emergency situations. The company said it cannot disclose which of those functions it performed for the DHS and Army exercise at Quantico.
What about operating the in denied environments?
“In principle, the drone has an advanced safety mechanism that in a scenario of interference the drone has a redundancy operation for safe landing,” said the spokesman. And while the ideal operation involves real-time transmission of data, the company says that “at times of lack of communications data is stored on the drone and transmitted upon landing.”
Autonomous operation is a crucial part of how the military is planning for electromagnetically denied environments in the future. Actively denied environments, already a staple of irregular warfare in Syria and Ukraine, are likely going to be a staple of wars to come, and vehicles that can navigate through the denial to mission objectives (say, autonomous battlefield resupply) will be a way to mitigate that risk. Autonomous sensor platforms, like the drone in a box, provide an interesting wrinkle. The whole mission set is capturing and transmitting sensor data back to humans who can use it, which is harder when jamming signals block transmissions.
The ability of the drones to load data onto the base stations, and then have the base stations transmit the information back, might overcome some jamming, but this interference seems a durable problem for the whole product category. It remains to be seen if companies are discovering that problem in field exercises, and planning around it.
“Percepto gained rich understanding over the particularities of mobile army units,” said the spokesman.
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.