Next time you spot a bee or dragonfly around you, take a closer look. What might appear to be an annoying insect could turn out to be a miniature (or nano) drone being controlled by someone far away. This isn’t science fiction but science fact – as unmanned aerial vehicle technology advances, drones are getting smaller. Packing a lot of functionality into a tiny form factor, nano drones are becoming a major military tool. Not only do they offer a quantum leap in surveillance capability, but they also hold the possibility of conducting swarm attacks on the enemy.
According to Group Captain Atul Pant, a serving member of the Indian Air Force, in the future, new generation aerial drones will be at the center stage of military operations in warfare, in both lethal and non-lethal roles. In a paper titled ‘Aerial Drones in Future Wars: A Conceptual Perspective’, presented at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, he writes: “Modern disruptive technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, miniaturized electronics, composites, etc, are taking the capabilities of unmanned systems to new highs and increasing autonomy in their usage by turning them into smart and intelligent machines. With further advancement of technology, their role in warfare is set to increase exponentially.”
Much of the action is currently happening in the United States which is developing advanced nano drones with unique capabilities. For instance, the Black Hornet from FLIR is designed to be used as part of the US Army’s Soldier Borne Sensor (SBS) programme – tools carried by an individual soldier to support small unit-level surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. More than 12,000 Black Hornet nano-UAVs have been delivered to defense and security forces worldwide.
Measuring less than 17 cm across and weighing under 33 grams, the drones have a range of nearly 2 km at speeds of up to 21 kmph. They are able to fly for up to 25 minutes on a single charge. In addition, they can take HD photos and provide live video feeds. Data sent to operators on the ground, equipped with a handheld ground control station (GCS) unit which communicates with the drone, is encrypted.
“Extremely light, nearly silent, and with a flight time up to 25 minutes, the combat-proven, pocketsized Black Hornet PRS (personal reconnaissance system) transmits live video and HD still images back to the operator,” says a FLIR press release. “It’s information feed provides soldiers with immediate covert situational awareness to help them perform missions more effectively.”
In Japan, the University of Tokyo unveiled the Dragon drone, a mini UAV made up of a number of small drones and is capable of changing its shape in midair. Moreover, it can determine what shape to take based on the space in which it is navigating.
China has a successful military UAV programme, which has been supplying drones to buyers across the world. The varieties of Chinese drones probably now exceed those in the US. The Chinese are alleged to have developed its UAVs on pilfered and reverse engineered technologies but have subsequently improved upon them to develop the current state-of-the-art ones. Chinese CH-4 UCAVs have already seen employment by the Iraq military in several hundred missions against rebels.
In 2017, the attack drone GJ-2 flew over the 8,848-meter-high Mount Everest, demonstrating Beijing’s ability to monitor Indian military movements round the clock. China’s EA-03 high-altitude, the long-endurance drone is publicised to have a range of 7,000 km, a maximum endurance of 36 hours, advanced command communications, and electronic warfare systems. In October 2018, China demonstrated the TW-365 heavy-lift cargo drone, and successfully tested the world’s largest unmanned transport drone capable of carrying up to 1.5 tonnes of load.
At the same time, China is strengthening its surveillance network with birdlike small drones. The Chinese government’s “Dove” programme has been building small drones that resemble birds. In the past few years, at least 30 military and government agencies have deployed these fake birds in five provinces.
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