Ground forces have been using drones, also known as small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS), for years, both in-theater and out. Used for close-area, low-altitude reconnaissance, live feeds using a variety of sensors provide instant information in RGB (standard color) thermal and infrared sensors mounted in the nose, sides and/or tails of the sUAS.
Until recently, fixed wing aircraft such as the RQ-11 (also known as the Raven), RQ12 (Wasp) or RQ20 (Puma) have been common. These fairly large-hand-launched aircraft provide instant recon, operated by a specialist who has been specifically trained. Forward Operating Bases have made great use of these small aerial sensor-laden devices. Unfortunately, they do require large landing areas, lots of duct tape and a skilled hand on the control sticks (these sUAS tend to break apart when landing on rocky ground).
With today’s technology shifting the sUAS industry at a rapid pace, ground forces are now accessing other systems and technologies, many of which are adopted/adapted from commercial-grade sUAS systems.
Built as a rapid deployment, nearly silent reconnaissance tool, the Black Hornet sUAS is pocket-sized, offering near-instant situational awareness (SA) that any non-specialist is able to deploy from a cargo pocket. Deployed by hand, this unit may be either programed with waypoints or manually flown to see over walls, around corners or peek into windows, doorways, etc.
Other systems are currently being evaluated, offering longer flight times, improved imaging, thermal, IR and/or a mix of information that is instantly viewable at the point of launch and shared across networks to a command post, FOB or other C4I.
For military purposes, the Army is seeking aircraft that are capable of 2-mile flights, offer thermal and RGB imagery, flight of 30 minutes or greater, man-packable and manufactured by NATO partners. Adapted equipment should be able to operate in the frequency bands the Army uses for operations. Additionally, the micro-sUAS should be uncomplicated, so that non-specialists would be capable of deploying, reading and retrieving the sUAS.
Products such as those manufactured by SZ DJI Technology Co., Ltd., are currently banned by the Army, due to issues of informational security/data sharing with foreign countries and the standard GPS systems being jammable.
The Department of Defense has funded through the Defense Innovation Unit, several NATO member manufacturing companies to develop sUAS that meet the Army requirements.
sUAS offer value regardless of environment. Urban environments, filled with corners and pockets, are high-hazard areas, and the sUAS enable an eye in the sky or eye-around-the-corner sneak and peek views prior to entering an area. Many are designed for programmed flight that stores no data in the event of capture or inability to recover. Live view is the primary goal.
The sUAS are changing virtually every aspect of our society, and ground forces are working toward improving existing capability and identifying new technologies to be better informed, situationally aware and achieving the information in seconds, rather than hours.