Civilian Unmanned Airborne Systems – Threats an Opportunities

The pace of change in the civilian unmanned airborne systems marketplace is staggering, and much like the mobile telephone, it will present both a number of threats and opportunities for defence and security forces.

Whilst the defence market for unmanned systems is well established, especially for larger systems, the real growth and innovation is in civilian markets.

Like many of the other Think Defence ‘long reads’, this is an accumulation of posts and ideas from across the years. The first posy on the subject was in 2011, covering the use of a civilian ‘drone’ by Libyan rebels to observe Gadhafi’s forces and direct their own artillery strikes.

I asked;

With this kind of unmanned system, relatively unsophisticated in comparison to a Reaper, of course, defence economics come into play. Systems like these, costing less than £10,000 can be easily obtained on the open market in significant quantities, operated without extensive training or worrying about airspace management, carry day and night sensors and generally provide enemy forces with a big asymmetric advantage.

It doesn’t take an overactive imagination to see how they could be easily weaponised either.

If all we can counter them with is hundreds of thousand pound missiles do we have an operational and economic problem?

Since then, operational use by forces in Ukraine and ISIS in Syria and Iraq has demonstrated just how they are being exploited in a defence context. Increasing concerns about their use near airports and nuclear power stations has also elevated concerns.

In response, a number of countermeasures have emerged, both conventional and unconventional.

Table of Contents


More than Toys

Examples of Use







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Keep your chin up TD, some of us appreciate the hard work! :)

The Other Chris

I really like the Falconry approach of various breeds, it’s quite a thriving micro-sector in the UK (*very* effective at dissuading pigeons when prey birds are roosted in an area for a week or so).

They can easily handle the smaller aircraft, naturally avoid larger ones and can be trained to recognise different models to either avoid or attack from different approaches which is something they do naturally.

Good to see there’s not one answer to the issue. I’m sure it won’t be long before we see the first Quadrotor-on-Quadrotor dogfight.


The opportunities for the use of UAS in Close and Medium Reconnaissance and wider unit level military applications should certainly be explored. As stated above I think unstructured experimentation would be a good way forward. Distribute consumable UAS down to car/section commander level and let the troops get on with it. I’m sure they will quickly find and share the best ways to make the most effective use of UAS. They will never be a substitute for ‘eyes on’ but they will certainly help to give a better idea of the best place to focus.
There are probably an infinite number of potential UAS applications for military use but as ever I believe we are a bit behind the curve as far as fully exploiting UAS technology is concerned.

Amazing depth of research, great work. No question that so far we have only scratched the surface of the potential benefits (and horrors) of widespread civilian and military UAS use.

“3D printing, designs shared online and open source control software mean that the technology cannot be contained and given this, we can also make a case that innovation cycles will turnover faster in the commercial market than the military”

This bit hits the nail on the head, now anyone with an internet connection has access to what was a decade ago, advanced military equipment. The technology is uncontrolled, and has huge potential, which means it will develop faster than the current defence hardware framework can cope with.

That also brings an opportunity to the military, that can exploit the low cost to their advantage.

UAV’s will soon turn into real drones, and will be a true force multiplier if the military can experiment and adapt.

80mph drone racing using VR googles.
The civvies are going to drive this tech no doubt.


It reminds me that I first saw a UK Army (RA) UAV flying in early 1964. It’s interesting that the rest of the world is catching on..



Was it the Radioplane Shelduck? A descendant of the earlier Radioplane models which were built at Van Nuys airport in LA. One of their technicians was a certain Miss Norma Jeane (Marilyn Monroe) who used to assemble Radioplane RP-5’s there.

El Sid

In a similar vein underwater :
Boeing Phantom Works have spent an estimated $50m on the Echo Voyager, a 50-ton diesel-electric UUV due to ship in late 2017. 1000 US gal of diesel gives a range of 6500nm, surfacing for 4-8 hours every three days to recharge its batteries. Can take a 20-ton payload down to 11,000ft (ie roughly the average depth of the Atlantic)

And whilst we’re on the subject of new toys :
Some pointers on Chinook upgrades, as Germany decides between it and CH-53K :

Piasecki have shown Powerpoint for various compound helicopter upgrades to existing designs, including Apaches and Chinooks with wings and a ducted fan or two on the back, more than doubling range in the latter’s case and increasing speed and lift :

Meanwhile AVX are proposing ducted fans with coaxial rotors for the lighter elements of FVL, and a tiltrotor for the Chinook equivalent :

You have to hand it to Karem, their tiltrotors certainly look the part :

Talking of tiltrotors, AW609 has resumed testing, although the crash seems to have pushed FAA certification back to 2018 :

And the first V-280 is coming along nicely, with a tethered power-up due within 12 months :

Aussie “Voyager” refuels an Aussie C-17 for the first time :

Polish Warmate is a small loitering munition with 10km radius and $12k unit cost, and two “huge” export orders from “two countries [that are] involved in military conflicts” (but not much indigenous aerospace industry presumably so Saudi? Jordan?)