The quadcopter is fine, rising above the landscape on its mission, but then something appears below it. And in the space of seconds the quadcopter is spiraling back to the ground.
The object hitting the quadcopter looks almost like it is made of foam and cardboard. It resembles nothing so much as a model rocket, only instead of an ignition engine it’s powered into the sky by a single propeller. The simplicity, and the likely low cost of the parts involved, create a potentially new alternative for knocking drones out of the sky: instead of using expensive missiles or complicated jammers, why not send a one-use robot on a ramming mission?
“This is a ‘dumb’ rocket that has navigation that lets it hone in on the drone but no explosives — it just rams the UAS in the hope the damage is enough to bring it down,” says Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. This rocket-inspired ram drone was developed by the St. Petersburg “Special Technology Center” (STTS), which is the same outfit that worked on Orlan-10 UAV, the workhorse of the Russian unmanned aerial fleet. The short six-second ascent features in part of a much longer video of Russian counter-drone technologies.
Recently, we’ve seen Russian companies explore a range of counter-drone options, including everything from a tail-sitting drone built around a shotgun to a technical-inspired ATV with an anti-aircraft gun on the back. Also featured in the anti-drone video are the Repellent C-UAS system, as well as a new rifle-style C-UAS weapon, that join existing Russian rifle-based anti-drone systems like Pischyal and Rex.
The ram-drone is perhaps the most interesting, and not just for the novelty. A small, hand-launched tool that navigates toward its target could prove easy to outfit with infantry and simple to employ. If the ram-drone goes to production and includes collapsible wings, units could even carry a few, ready to disable any overhead surveillance encountered while out in the field. Apart from the sensor and navigation system, about which we know little, the parts of this ram-drone seem like the sort of thing a hobbyist could put together in a garage on the cheap.
Russia-backed forces have encountered cheap commercial drones adapted as weapons and scouts in both Syria and Ukraine, and has found few answers anywhere near as cheap as the drones they’re designed to destroy.
“This is something Russia may have picked up in Syria,” says Bendett, a fellow in Russian studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “Using simpler projectiles to counter adversary unmanned aerial vehicles without explosives in case it has to crash near friendly forces.”
The lack of an explosive on the ram-drone means less potential risk when fired close-by, which is where cheap drones tend to operate. The relative silence of just a single propeller makes it a discreet tool for disabling hostile robots. The ram-drone is undergoing testing with the Russian military. If the military finds it useful, the latest counter-drone design may be rocketing ahead at ramming speed.
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.