Not so long ago unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) capabilities were limited to remote, winged flight for reconnaissance, or to carry payloads.
They also required highly skilled pilots and operators. For example, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, which entered service into the US Air Force in 1995, required a pilot, two sensor operators and often various other ground control personnel, up to a 550-staff control centre to operate a system of four MQ-1s. These days UAVs are often packed with cameras, sensors and smart technologies, and many can be piloted by a single person with no more skill required than is needed to use a smart phone.
The cluster of technologies around drone development has advanced to enable UAVs to fulfil more functions, become easier to operate and be produced in all sizes, from the tiny, to the mighty. Teledyne’s Black Hornet weighs less than 70 grams and can take off from its operator’s hand, while Alabama-based Aevum’s massive UAV for launching payloads into space, Ravn X, has a 18 meter (60ft.) wingspan and has a gross takeoff weight of 25,000 kilograms.
To illustrate the tiny, let’s take a look at the Black Hornet 4 Personal Reconnaissance System, unveiled at last month’s Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) conference. Developed by FLIR Systems, which was acquired by Teledyne in 2021, this nano-drone is designed primarily for dismounted soldiers and is affectionately referred to as “a spy plane that fits in your hand”. More than 20,000 Black Hornet PRS systems have been delivered so far to military and security forces in over 40 countries.
The nano-UAV can be used by soldiers in the field for situational understanding, to rapidly identify targets beyond visual line-of-sight and assess weapon effects in real-time. The Black Hornet 4 is equipped with a 12-megapixel daytime camera, a high-resolution thermal imager, both of which deliver crisp video and still images to the operator. Meanwhile, the drone has a flying time of more than 30 minutes, range greater than two kilometers, and can fly in 25-knot winds. The previous model has already been used successfully by the Ukrainian military for more than a year.
With a 20-meter (66 foot) wingspan and a maximum takeoff weight of 4,763 kg, the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper provides a great example of the mighty! Originally based on the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 is a multi-mission Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) first flown in 2001 and adopted by the US Air Force in 2007. The turboprop-powered MQ-9A has 34 hours of flying time, a top speed of 240 KTAS (about 444 kmph.), can operate up to 50,000 feet, and has a 1,746 kilogram (3,850 pound) payload capacity.
Recently, General Atomics has developed a Multi-Domain Operations (M2DO) variant of the Reaper compatible with open mission systems (i.e. non-proprietary), and improved angle of attack and enhanced reconnaissance capabilities.
However, it’s not all about size. One of the most significant areas of development is the ability of autonomous drones to swarm and to be used for manned-unmanned teaming. As more and more UAVs are designed with autonomy, the more we’ll see more sophisticated swarming and teaming functionality, and UAV capabilities elevated to a whole new level.
by Carrington Malin