Drones in the Field
The world’s most powerful military intends to remain so despite imminent budget cuts that could slash defence spending by nearly $500 billion over the next decade.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s “leaner” defence strategy, unveiled last January, thus calls for “smaller conventional ground forces,” the retirement of “outdated Cold War-era systems,” and increased investments in intelligence gathering and cyber warfare technologies.
In other words, more drones will be buzzing the airways, roving through deserts, and patrolling seas very soon.
General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator drone and its more advanced variant, the MQ-9 Reaper, have played a crucial role in disrupting and eliminating militant networks in the Middle East and northern Africa over the past decade. Recently, however, the U.S. drone campaign has become the subject of intense debate and protest as the number of civilians killed in “signature strikes” has risen.
AeroVironment’s new Switchblade drone serves as a more precise alternative to the U.S. military’s larger hunter-killers. Named one of Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of the Year 2012, the 5.5-pound, electric-powered “kamikaze” drone is small enough to be carried in a soldier’s rucksack and can be deployed within minutes. After being fired from a mortar-like tube, the autonomous or remotely piloted vehicle can fly a distance of six miles at 60 to 100 miles per hour for 10 minutes. The drone operator receives real-time colour and infrared video and GPS coordinates on a hand-held control. When an enemy is identified, the operator can crash the Switchblade quietly and at high speeds into a precise target, causing a tiny warhead inside the drone to explode.
He was known as “The Pacer.” Day after day for months on end, a tall and slender man dressed in traditional Pakistani garb strolled the inside perimeter of his highly fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Covert surveillance drones loitering overhead transmitted real-time images of The Pacer to intelligence officials in Washington, many of whom suspected him to be Osama bin Laden in hiding.
According to Vanity Fair, President Barack Obama was presented with several options to detain or kill the suspect, including the use of “a small guided munition that could be fired from a tiny drone” while The Pacer walked his garden.
While unconfirmed, the “tiny drone” in question may have been AAI Corporation’s RQ-7 Shadow, a 12-foot-long drone that has logged more than 750,000 hours during 173,000 missions in Afghanistan and Iraq since the early 2000s. Equipped with sensors capable of locating and identifying still and moving targets, the Shadow provides up to nine hours of tactical support to ground troops from 15,000 feet in the air.
Until recently, the Shadow remained unarmed because its lightweight payload could not support the 100-pound hellfires or 500-pound smart bombs currently dropped by Predator-class drones. In 2010, however, the U.S. Marine Corps began seeking lightweight weapons systems that could be integrated on small drones. One strong contender is Raytheon’s Pyros, a 13-pound GPS- or laser-guided bomb that can be installed under the wing of a Shadow. The defence contractor successfully tested the Pyros for the first time in August 2012, striking precise ground targets from more than 7,000 feet in the air with minimal collateral damage.
While Obama ultimately chose to raid the bin Laden compound, the development of, and interest in, small tactical munitions could mean the expansion of the U.S. military’s fleet of hunter-killer drones from hundreds to thousands in the not-too-distant future.
Sixteen U.S. Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier, sank when they were unexpectedly attacked by a fast-moving swarm of heavily armed speedboats in the Persian Gulf – hypothetically, anyway. According to the New York Times, the imagined scenario played out during one of the largest joint-military exercises in U.S. history, known as the Millennium Challenge 2002, which pitted the U.S. armed forces against an unnamed and highly networked enemy in the Middle East.
The three-week long, $250-million war game revealed significant weaknesses in the ability of the U.S. to defend itself against asymmetrical threats at sea. And its adversaries apparently took note. In 2008, five boats operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard swarmed a small U.S. naval convoy in the congested Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of the world’s oil passes. While the 30-minute standoff ended without incident, Iran’s growing fleet of weaponized speedboats and mastery of swarm tactics has U.S. officials on high alert.
One means of addressing this threat is sea drones. In October 2012, the U.S. Navy made history when it weaponized a remote-controlled boat for the first time. A 36-foot unmanned inflatable vessel fired six 30-pound missiles, made by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., hitting both moving and stationary targets floating more than two miles away. The boat was also equipped with a .50-calibre machine gun and cameras.
Navy program manager Mark Moses said in a press release that the drone “was developed in response to recent world events which have increased the concern over swarms of small attack craft.” In the future, armed sea drones will, among other things, patrol the outskirts of naval convoys and crowded harbours where small enemy craft can easily hide.
The “golden age” of airships came to an explosive end in May 1937, when the infamous Hindenburg, a German-made passenger zeppelin, crashed over New Jersey’s Naval Air Station Lakehurst. Seventy-five years later, however, airships may be making a comeback.
In August 2012, the U.S. Army’s Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (pictured) demonstrated next-generation intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technology as it made its historic first flight over the same Lakehurst airfield where the Hindenburg disaster occurred. Developed in partnership by Northrop Grumman and Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd., the “lighter-than-air,” helium-filled airship measures the length of a football field and the height of a seven-storey building. Travelling between 35 and 90 miles per hour, its 2,750-pound payload of powerful sensors – including electronic eavesdroppers and full-motion video cameras – will provide more than 21 days of continuous battlefield surveillance from 22,000 feet in the air. The LEMV will also be capable of hauling 15,000 pounds of cargo in and out of war zones, while burning 10 times less fuel than conventional aircraft.
Northrop Grumman was awarded a $517-million contract from the U.S. Army in 2010 to develop three “optionally manned” LEMV airships, beating out Lockheed Martin’s manned P-791 prototype airship. Despite a successful first flight, however, the future of the LEMV, which is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in 2013, is threatened by defence budget cuts and declining demand as the War on Terror winds down.
Several other unmanned airship projects remain in development, including Lockheed Martin’s Integrated Sensor Is Structure, or ISIS, which will provide continuous ISR from 70,000 feet in the air for up to 10 years.
The eerie buzz of drones reverberated throughout the densely populated Gaza Strip as Israel and Palestine engaged in a bloody, eight-day battle last month.
“It’s constant. It doesn’t stop during the day. It doesn’t stop during the night. Sometimes it’s a little bit more intensive, but it just continues,” said Al Jazeera’s Nicole Johnston, reporting from Gaza. “Some of these drones are surveillance drones: They’re keeping an eye on Gaza. They’re pinpointing targets or vehicles. They’ve got all of the Gaza Strip under surveillance. And some of the other drones actually can carryout airstrikes.”
The Israeli government maintains a highly sophisticated fleet of drones, rivalling that of the United States. Among those keeping a persistent watch over Israel’s adversaries – including Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon – are the Heron I and its bigger, more powerful variant, the Heron TP (also referred to as the Eitan). Developed by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, the Heron I is an autonomous, medium-altitude, long-range surveillance drone capable of carrying 550 pounds of sensors up to 30,000 feet for more than 40 hours at a time. The Heron TP, meanwhile, is Israel’s largest drone and can carry 2,200 pounds of sensors up to 45,000 feet for 36 hours on end. Both are rumoured to have strike capabilities.
As two radar-evading Black Hawk helicopters carrying U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six descended on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during the moonlit hours of May 2, 2011, a secret stealth drone transmitted live video of the raid to the White House Situation Room, where President Barack Obama and his national security team watched anxiously.
Developed by Lockheed Martin’s clandestine Skunk Works program, the RQ-170 Sentinel became publicly known in 2009 after photographs, taken two years earlier at Afghanistan's Kandahar Airbase, were first published by French magazine Air & Cosmos. Nicknamed the “Beast of Kandahar” by aviation expert Bill Sweetman, the Air Force has since acknowledged it is operating a small fleet of Sentinels for highly sensitive surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
The $6-million, bat-winged, boomerang-shaped drone has a ceiling height of 50,000 feet and is swathed in a radar-absorbing skin, making it invisible to aircraft detection systems on the ground. While little is known about its sensory capabilities, Wired speculates the unarmed Beast is “the test bed for a new microwave weapon” capable of knocking out enemy electronics systems. It may also carry “atmospheric sampling” technology that whiffs the air for traces of chemicals from underground nuclear facilities, electronic eavesdroppers that intercept cellphone conversations, and jamming systems that can interrupt enemy communications and infect their networks with malicious malware.
Last December, a Sentinel crashed during a covert mapping mission over Iran’s nuclear sites. Iran recovered the drone and may be working with China and Russia to reverse-engineer the stealth stalker.
One billion of the world’s poor are isolated from the global economy and critical services because of inadequate access to all-season roads. The traditional response to this problem is infrastructure development, which requires massive public investment and often results in environmental degradation. In summer 2011, however, a group of students in the 10-week Graduate Studies Program at Singularity University devised a way to “leapfrog” roads the same way mobile technologies “leapfrogged” wired communications.
Matternet (pictured) is a network of autonomous drones capable of delivering small amounts of food, medicine, and other supplies to inaccessible or disaster-stricken communities in the developing world.
Andreas Raptopoulos, co-founder and CEO of Matternet, said Matternet drones will transport materials similar to the way mosquitoes transmit disease.
“The mosquito travels a very short distance – I think around 200 yards – in its lifetime. But people who have studied how disease spreads through mosquitoes found that it spreads like a wave,” said Raptopoulos. “The genetic material moves through the system by each [mosquito] transmitting to the next.”
Similarly, Matternet drones will stay local and transport packages like waves: One drone will carry materials to a nearby ground control station, where they will be transferred onto another drone and delivered to the next station, and so on.
Matternet is currently programming off-the-shelf drone technology capable of autonomously transporting two kilograms of material from one location to another more than six miles away. In preliminary trials this summer, Matternet successfully delivered medicines to a disaster-relief camp in Port au Prince, Haiti. Next, Matternet will develop solar-powered ground control stations where drones of various sizes and payload capacities can autonomously recharge batteries and ferry supplies between multiple locations. Eventually, Matternet will develop a secure operating system that connects drones and ground control stations in a network that spans entire countries.
Ultimately, Raptopoulos hopes the system will scale organically so many distinct networks come together to move more materials through the system. He also hopes to see the technology used as a courier system in highly congested megacities like Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also supporting research on the use of drones for vaccine delivery in remote locations.
The drone technology revolutionizing cargo delivery in Afghanistan may soon transform humanitarian aid delivery as well.
Two pilotless helicopters, developed in partnership by Kaman Aerospace and Lockheed Martin, are the first of their kind to deliver cargo and supplies to NATO and U.S. troops in a combat zone. Deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, the unmanned K-MAX helicopter is a fully autonomous or remotely controlled chopper capable of lifting up to 6,000 pounds at a time. Kaman claims its “aerial trucks” flew nearly 500 missions and “lifted more than 1.6 million pounds of cargo” during their first eight months overseas. The helicopters also made military history when they performed the first unmanned “hot hookup,” which involves ground troops attaching cargo to a sling hanging from the helicopter’s underbelly as it hovers in midair.
These heavy lifters have reduced the need for aircrews and ground convoys during risky cargo and supply deliveries in Afghanistan – where they are subject to ambushes, roadside bombs, and technical malfunctions caused by harsh terrain and weather conditions.
Jim Naylor, director of business development for K-MAX with Lockheed Martin Mission Systems & Sensors, said he “absolutely” believes the unmanned K-MAX could be used for humanitarian aid delivery as well.
“The interesting thing about the unmanned K-MAX is that it’s a heavy lifter,” said Naylor. “Whether it’s in a manned or unmanned capacity, in a disaster it certainly could do resupply, it certainly could move stuff, it could certainly do a lot of things. And then where there’s cases where you don’t want to put somebody in harm’s way, you certainly could use it in an unmanned configuration.”
Currently, the unmanned K-MAX are only operating in Afghanistan, where they will remain until at least the spring of 2013.
Increasingly, the high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance drone is also providing critical support to governments and aid organizations during natural and humanitarian disasters.
When a series of devastating wildfires blazed through Southern California in 2007, forcing the evacuation of nearly one million people, the Global Hawk’s infrared sensors helped decision-makers and firefighters determine the intensity, speed, and trajectory of the flames.
When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake reduced much of Haiti’s nascent infrastructure to rubble in January 2010, its near-real-time cameras produced high-resolution aerial images of the devastation to prioritize and direct aid delivery.
And when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan’s east coast in March 2011, causing meltdowns at three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, its infrared sensors and sophisticated radar system allowed officials to “peak” inside the damaged reactors and plan a response.
Similar to Lockheed Martin’s decades’ old U-2 spy plane, the unarmed Global Hawk can fly more than 60,000 feet in the air at 357 miles per hour for more than 48 hours at a time. Meanwhile, its powerful payload of sensors can watch over 44,000 square nautical miles – an area the size of Illinois – every day.
Global Hawk’s eye-in-the-sky capabilities have also proven useful for arctic and maritime surveillance, counter-drug operations, peacekeeping missions, and severe weather tracking and environmental research.
Illustrations by Cameron Tulk and Merrill Liu