The pace of change in the civilian unmanned airborne systems marketplace is staggering, and much like mobile telephones, this will present a combination of threats and opportunities for defence and security forces.
Whilst the defence market is well established, especially for larger systems, the real growth is in civilian markets.
Like many of the other Think Defence Projects, this is an accumulation of posts and ideas from across the years. The first post 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.
Since then, I have covered the subject a few times, including this longer post.
- Non-state actors use of commercial drone technology
- Capabilities – More than Toys
Non-state actors use of commercial drone technology
It is convenient to split issues along the lines of defence and security. Defence, characterised by battlefield operations and Security, generally more in line with the policing and intelligence domains. That there are confusing and fuzzy lines between the two is an indicator of just how challenging the subject is to define.
Security and Safety
There are a number of instances where drones have caused a great deal of concern for safety and security.
Perhaps the most famous so far has been the Pirate Party flying, or perhaps more accurately, crash landing, a drone in front of Angela Merkel at a campaign rally in Dresden in 2013. The Deputy Head of the Pirate Party, Markus Barenhoff, said;
The party admitted the crash was not part of the plan but German security forces, and those around the world, took note.
In 2014, the French security services investigated a number of reports of drones flying over their nuclear power plants.
Google may well obscure their mapping and satellite imagery of sensitive sites but if a £800 unmanned system can shoot geo-referenced 1080p HD digital video and 20mp still imagery of the same site in 15 minutes, those protections are simply irrelevant.
Last year, a small drone crash landed onto the White House lawn. The owner, Howard Solomon III, lost control after wind blew it away from the Washington Monument he was taking photographs of.
Although there was no malicious intent, it demonstrated perfectly just how difficult they are to detect and counter. This incident was actually the second that year at the White House, four months earlier, an intelligence agency employee crashed a borrowed device after flying it out of his apartment window and losing control.
News organisations have started to use them, from Thailand to the Kent-based newspaper group, News Shopper. A freelance journalist was arrested for flying a drone near the scene of a Surrey caravan fire and in Davos, three BBC journalists were arrested for also flying a drone, near the World Economic Forum event in 2015.
More recently, the focus has been on the danger to aircraft, this from the Metropolitan Police a few days ago;
As can be imagined, this incident created a significant response and highlighted serious concerns with passengers and aircraft operators alike
Some claimed that it was probably a plastic bag whilst others are still maintaining it was a UAS.
None of the incidents described above were linked with criminal or terrorist organisations but it is clear that these groups have recognised the value of commercial unmanned systems.
Mexican criminal cartels have used unmanned systems for the delivery of drugs and other contraband across borders and into prisons. The preferred tactic has been to use pre-programmed GPS coordinates rather than remote control and although payloads might be limited to a couple of kilogrammes at a time, they provide a high degree of delivery confidence. It has also been reported that they have been used to monitor security forces locations during smuggling operations.
A US citizen, Rezwan Ferdaus, was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2012 for a plot involving Al Qaida, C4 explosives and a remote-controlled model aircraft.
In the UK, there have been a number of incidents reported of criminals using quadcopters to deliver contraband to prisoners, Class A/B drugs and mobile telephones for example.
The image below shows a Phantom 4, available for less than £1,000, that was seized during Operation Airborne, a joint Caledonian Neighbourhoods Policing Team and the Metropolitan Police Special Constabulary operation to intercept these devices.
Others have been reported.
For unconventional and poorly resourced military or insurgent forces, commercial systems provide a low-cost entry into the unmanned world and have seen widespread use in recent conflicts in Libya, Ukraine and Iraq/Syria.
No month long training programmes or extended procurement processes.
In the conflict in east Ukraine, both sides have made extensive use of commercial unmanned systems. (Although the non-state actor definition would normally exclude government forces, I have included it here because of their use of commercial systems and hybrid force organisation)
Given the nature of the conflict and available evidence, it would suggest that this is a most ‘drone heavy’ combat environment, especially since both sides have them. There are many lessons that can be learned.
One really interesting aspect of the conflict (and probably worthy of several studies alone) is the crowdfunding initiatives both in Ukraine and abroad. This is an ongoing endeavour that seeks to fund items as diverse as covers for Grad rocket launchers to quadcopters. Chicago Automaiden is a US organisation that funds and develops unmanned systems and other items for use by Ukraine forces.
The Aerorozvidka (air reconnaissance) project has created a grass roots unmanned system provisioning and operations capability and they have made extensive use of octocopter designs and a modified version of the widely available DJI Phantom. The project has their own Facebook page and website.
Aerorozvidka was started in 2014 by Natan Chazin and a handful of others and has since played an important role in delivering design development, training and operational services to the Ukraine armed forces.
There are a number of other initiatives, certainly a sign of a nation pulling together and exploiting its technical resources. Working with universities and small technology companies with readily available and open source technology, the Ukrainian forces have managed to drive down costs and improve technical capabilities, especially in jamming resistance.
For many of these citizen groups involved with UAS operations it has been a tough journey, with many deaths and injuries, but capabilities are improving. When equipped with infrared cameras they have been used to provide overwatch security for checkpoints, support artillery observation and other reconnaissance tasks.
The separatist organisation has also used commercial UAS technology, even to the extent of arming them with hand grenades and rudimentary release mechanisms, but given they have access to Russian systems, probably not to the same extent as government forces.
This document provides an excellent overview of the efforts to counter Camcopters of the Minsk II Monitoring Mission
In Syria and Iraq, the various factions have also made use of a variety of fixed and rotary wing commercial unmanned systems.
Using multiple camera angles and video post production techniques, a number have turned this raw footage into an effective communication and propaganda tool. Imagine if these were showing attacks against British soldiers fighting in some future campaign.
There have also been a number of reports of ISIS weaponising commercial UAS with hand grenades and explosives.
Bloomberg published an article in Jul 2016 that highlighted many of the concerns;
Clearly, the US is taking the threat seriously, significantly, the threat is no longer about being observed by ISIS.
At the beginning of September 2016, a video surfaced that showed a quad copter dropping a small free-fall explosive device onto government forces/
The videos above show the level of sophistication now readily available to non-state actors and has we have seen with other technologies, this will not slow down or stop.
The US Army has recently updated their Techniques for Combined Arms for Air Defense document.
The US Army has clearly recognised the threat from small commercial UAS.
Further evidence of increasing use of small commercial and improvised unmanned systems has emerged from Syria and Iraq.
The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College maintain a database of sightings, click here to view.
Even the Taleban have started to exploit small drones in Afghanistan
— Ahmet Yar (@Pashtunist) October 21, 2016
One thing is certain, their use is proliferating in multiple geographies and being used both for observation and attack
Capabilities – More than Toys
It might be tempting to think of small commercial UAS as not far removed from toys.
Whilst there are many toy-like devices. there are as many that bear no relationship to a toy whatsoever, professional users in the inspection, survey, filmmaking, agriculture, archaeology, emergency response and journalism sectors are driving innovation and improvements in all sorts of directions, including;
Most drones are relatively fragile, open rotors and lightweight construction make them prone to damage from minor collisions and rough landings. Aftermarket modification kits can provide rotor guards and specialist crash proof designs have also emerged for use in crevasse exploration and search, stop sniggering at the back. The Flyability Gimbal has also been proposed as a suitable design for search and rescue in urban environments. The Vantage Robotics Snap uses four rotors with integral guards, safety and robustness feature heavily in their marketing materials.
It is easy to envisage lightweight blade guards being mandatory in some markets.
Most devices are specified to carry a camera payload but there have been many instances of organisations wanting to use them for high-value parcel delivery (Amazon, DHL etc.). Drug delivery in remote locations in Africa has also been mooted as a possible use for small UAS. This has resulted in an increase in interest in improving payloads.
The real Achilles heal of consumer/prosumer types is their endurance, typically, 20-30 minutes. This makes them of less use for persistent ISTAR but then again, the ultra expensive PD-100 Black Hornet nano UAV from Prox Dynamics and Marlborough Communications that is in service with the British Army only has a flight time of 20-25 minutes. Military systems have been developed that utilise fuel cells but the civilian market has been slower to catch up. Although battery technology is always improving, one solution currently being explored by a number of manufacturers is hydrogen fuel cells. Intelligent Energy, from Loughborough, have developed a hydrogen fuel cell that can extend flight duration to several hours.
If size is not an issue, larger UAS can carry larger payloads and batteries, 10kg and 1-hour endurance, for example, is not uncommon for the larger devices.
Many systems are available with mission planning software that allows the operator to pre-programme flight paths and waypoints to reduce workload and reliance on skilled operators. Many of these are open source, available on software repositories and ‘app stores’. Third party mission planning and flight control software are also increasingly available from specialist vendors. Flight control software is available to circle around an object, move on a virtual wire, object following, full systems monitoring, flight planning with waypoints, station keeping, automatic return to launch point, camera control, automatic data export and autonomous search.
For use in areas where availability or visibility of a GPS signal may be in doubt, underneath a bridge or in the shadow of a large building, for example, precise positioning would normally be a problem. Inertial positioning is one option but for other locations, GPS can be augmented with Differential GPS that makes use of publicly available beacons (Trinity House in the UK for example) or using a system like Local Positioning System (LPS) from Novadem.
High definition day/night sensors are a given but thermal imaging, LIDAR and Multi-Spectral Sensors are also available to commercial users. UAV Vision manufactures a gimballed EO/IR sensor weighing less than 700g that can stream video imagery at a pixel resolution of 720×576 and IR at 640×480. Like all responsible vendors, they won’t sell to just anyone but this is still commercial technology. LIDAR scanners are used for collision detection and 3D mapping.
Broadcast and film quality cameras are available from Phase One, RED, Black Magic, Nikon and others. The Drones for Good Competition has resulted in a number of academic programmes such as the one shown below for mine detection, from Bristol University.
Tamron have recently introduced a camera module for small UAS that includes onboard optical stabilisation, together with full HD output.
Onboard image processing devices from vendors such as Headwall allow multiple sensors and data inputs to be fused.
Common control stations and those that can be used to control multiple platforms are available, and how about a smartwatch control system!
Extended Range Flight Control
Control systems typically require line of sight and this naturally reduces utility, waypoint navigation can be used and payload systems are exploring alternatives to GPS and WiFi. Although regulatory conditions normally specify a line of sight as being the distance limit there are some professional applications where this is being exceeded.
Mesh network technologies have also started to appear in unmanned systems for a robust and non-line of sight communications.
Obstacle Avoidance and Flight Control
This is one of the main focus areas of current research for obvious reasons, either for low speed or high-speed operations. Laser, ultrasonic and even synthetic vision using a Microsoft Kinect sensor have all been implemented with the objective of allowing them to fly in close formation, inside buildings and urban areas. The videos below show systems using onboard automatic obstacle avoidance, human operators are not making the decisions.
Swarming technology is also in receipt of a great deal of interest, indeed, the MoD Centre for Defence Enterprise is funding a competition called ‘Many Drones Make Light Work‘ that will explore how swarming technology can be used in support of defence missions
Although this is clearly a defence funded activity, there are many parallel in industry and academia.
Some manufacturers have started to look at arming these relatively low-cost systems. The South African company Desert Wolf is offering an 8 prop unit that is equipped with 4 paintball barrels and a hopper containing 4,000 pepper balls for riot control. It can also carry strobe lights and eye safe lasers. In the USA, a company called Chaotic Moon has developed one that can carry a Taser.
Although the most focus is on a quad, hex and octo rotary designs there are also some very interesting fixed wing designs that deliver much greater endurance and the ability to cover larger areas.
some manufacturers have also started to specialise in niche markets, mapping, survey and mining for example. Two market leaders are senseFly and QuestAV. Both can produce hyper accurate geo-referenced digital imagery using autonomous unmanned aircraft. The post-flight analysis is carried out to add reference points, ground information and stitch the imagery together into an ortho-mosaic image. It can then be exported in a number of formats suitable for inclusion in mapping and GIS systems, whether they be publicly accessible through a UN On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) and MapBox. QuestAV have recently introduced a system specifically for the marine environment called QuestUAV Aqua (imaginative I know!).
The rapidly growing and commercialising sport of ‘drone racing’ will also further drive innovation, especially in endurance, speed and obstacle avoidance.
TOYS, THEY ARE NOT
In a safety context, the threat seems to be mostly non-malicious, careless use of commercial UAS near airports or groups of people for example.
Terrorist threats might seem far-fetched but the media attention given to ‘drones’ plays into their potential use against civilians. Most systems cannot lift heavy payloads but in many regards, they don’t need to.
The videos below shows a commercial DJI Phantom drone used to carry a flag into a football stadium during a match between Serbia and Albania in October 2014. The match was pretty much a fight from start to finish but the drone incident resulted in a brawl and riot, leading to the match suspension.
A small explosive charge surrounded by nuts and bolts can be devastatingly effective in the right circumstances, instead of a flag. From a terror and societal disruption perspective, imagine what would happen if that explosive were replaced with a bag of flour and a warning about anthrax.
Targeting specific politicians, as the Merkel video shows, might also be relatively easy in an open and free society.
On a future battlefield, we cannot assume the enemy will not have access to unmanned systems.
They may not be as sophisticated as ours, but that is not really the point.
From a defence perspective, their most obvious use is the age old technique of climbing a hill and looking beyond, i.e. intelligence gathering.
What makes them such a threat has nothing to do with their capabilities or lack thereof, it is their potential for ubiquity driven by mass market cost reduction.
Sophisticated military unmanned systems are expensive and it is this that puts them out of reach of many of our potential enemies but when those potential enemies can buy one from Amazon for hundreds of dollars then the specification difference between proper military systems and remote control toys becomes of decreasing relevance, their very lack of sophistication and low cost becomes the problem because it will drive us to counter with increasingly expensive measures.
3D printing designs shared online and open source control software means that the technology cannot be contained and given this, we can also make a case that innovation cycles will turn over faster in the commercial market than the military.
Beyond just looking…
Current commercial offerings are designed around the carriage of a video or still camera payload and the means to transmit to a control station, roughly the same weight as a hand grenade or two. With a bit of imagination, one could see an enterprising and imaginative enemy using 50 of these, each carrying an explosive and bag of nails to simply fly to a pre-programmed pattern above a military airfield and destroy a handful of very expensive but very fragile Typhoons or F35’s.
Impossible you say, except the software is freely available online that enables swarming behaviour and formation flying, not remotely piloted. The enemy would not need 50 pilots as each would formate against a pre-arranged pattern to maximise fragmentation coverage and all it would take is a large commercial van to carry them.
A poor man’s cluster bomb.
The Taliban attacked Camp Bastion and destroyed six percent of the USMC’s Harrier inventory, they were housed in fabric shade shelters.
Threat multiplication is increased by swarming systems, again, these are advancing, although still mostly in academia and government.
This subject is interesting because of the relative economic exchange rates, buy a hundred, arm them with a grenade, pre-programme to fly over a military airfield and drop their grenades in a pattern to maximise fragmentation coverage and you have a very effective means of putting very expensive combat aircraft and helicopters out of action, maybe not permanently but certainly good enough to do a denial job. A command detonated Claymore mine weighs less than 2Kg but has an effective range of approximately 50m. Although it is an anti-personnel system, the effect on light vehicles, helicopters or aircraft would be equally devastating.
All far-fetched, perhaps, but consider one of the fastest growing areas for civilian drone systems is for package delivery. Package delivery might be for something from Amazon or an emergency flotation device for a swimmer in difficulty, both have been demonstrated.
Substitute the parcel for an anti-personnel mine or unintended ground sensor seems less far-fetched.
During RAE15, Oleg Sienko, General Director of Uralvagonzavod said;
This videos below from RT (as usual, treat with a pinch of salt) show an AT-29 anti-armour rocket being fired from a commercial UAS.
How would the British Army defend against this today, not in a few years, today?
At the recent MPSO defence exhibition in Poland, the Polish Military Institute of Armament Technology (WITU) showcased a weaponised commercial UAS called the Dragonfly that could penetrate up to 200mm of RHA in a top attack profile, a conventional blast fragmentation warhead was also shown.
The battlefield threat is twofold, their use in intelligence gathering today and the potential for weaponisation tomorrow, and as can be seen, the latter is becoming a reality very soon.
Accepting there is a range of threats, there has to be a range of counters.
Regulatory, Training and Privacy Legislation
Many of the safety security domain challenges are likely to be met by regulatory approaches, not all security threats come from those with ill intent.
The regulatory agencies have probably been somewhat behind the curve, as might be expected in any industry where increasing innovation and decreasing cost lead to widespread adoption. There has been somewhat of a ‘Wild West’ feeling in some parts of the market as regulators, insurers and user groups struggle to coalesce around a single sensible and supportable approach.
At the upper end of the regulatory spectrum is the significant volume of work being done for larger unmanned systems by the European Aviation Safety Environment (EASA), UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). There are various research projects, working groups and studies seeking to agree on suitable regulatory frameworks for unmanned systems. EASA has released a technical framework for UAS regulation, the FAA is likely to release their equivalent soon and ICAO is scheduled to release guidance by 2018.
As much of this international work progresses, national regulators have had their own rules in place for some time. In Russia, any unmanned aircraft over 250 grammes requires certification and registration, with flight plans submitted to local authorities. After a fairly rigid start, Spain now has weight tiers, any system between two and twenty-five kilogrammes must be piloted by an operator with airworthiness certificate and all flights must be under 400ft within line of sight. Recreational systems in France must be flown under 150ft, and not at night or over populated areas but in the UK, systems weighing less than twenty kilogrammes can be flown by recreational operators as long as they remain below 400ft, within visual line of sight and not over people. Commercial operators must have special permission and operator qualification, read more at the CAA website. This is a rapidly changing environment and no doubt these will have changed by the time you read this.
The Civil Aviation Authority have produced a video for the ‘Drone Code’ and information on registration is available from the Dronesafe Register
Regulation is also being increasingly used with technology solutions.
Most of the larger manufacturers have software that includes ‘geo-fencing’ capabilities that ensure the system cannot be piloted into a ‘no fly’ zone. No fly zones are maintained in real time, in the USA for example, by a company called AirMap.
The software also ensures altitude limits are no exceeded.
For responsible users, this provides a great deal of assurance, they cannot inadvertently fly their aircraft in restriction airspace. With real-time updates available, even temporary restrictions such as those over a forest fire can be incorporated.
In the UK, No Flyzone UK provides a similar ‘request no fly zone’ service.
Some of the most typical causes of accidents that might cause a security issue such as low battery or lost communications are also being increasingly addressed with software, automatic landing upon a defined battery threshold or ‘return home’ on lost communications, for example.
More advanced collision avoidance systems are also increasingly being deployed, especially as large technology organisations enter the market. Intel has recently purchased a number of start-up companies and has combined them with their own technologies to create some very impressive collision avoidance systems. It’s very advanced RealSense technology is now being incorporated into lower cost consumer-oriented systems. For higher flying systems, a technology that utilises cell networks for position tracking has been developed by PrecisionHawk.
Even NASA has recently started testing a US national UAS air traffic control system.
Through a combination of registration, policing guidelines, regulation and technology, together with sensible and lawful operator communities and trade bodies, the majority of non-malicious safety and security threats should be gradually addressed, allowing malicious threats to be the focus, or in a critical location (e.g airport) safety context, catching the idiots.
Detection, Classification and Defeat
Whilst small commercial UAS can be difficult to detect, they are not impossible to detect.
The four main methods are optical/thermal, acoustic, passive RF and radar.
If the system is being actively controlled or transmitting video imagery, it will be radiating RF energy that can be detected and triangulated. For fixed locations, this can be relatively simple to install but more difficult for moving areas or temporary locations.
Acoustic detection uses signature recognition, each drone creates a unique noise. This may not work well in cluttered environments like urban areas, and at extended distances. DroneShield and Alsok are providers of this type of technology.
Thermal and visual detection can use the UAS movement and contrast against a static background. With advanced scene change algorithms this can provide highly effective detection but again, potentially limited in cluttered environments. Small UAS tend to be battery powered and use electric motors, neither well characterised by high thermal signatures.
Radar is the most widely used, but small UAS are still difficult targets to detect, and there is the ever-present problem of bird rejection, Blighter and Kelvin Hughes, both from the UK, have specialist small object detection radars.
The Blighter A400 radar has a published detection range for compact UAV of 6km. The Elvira radar from Dutch company Robin Radar was used to provide security for the G7 Summit in Bavaria last year.
Most of the emergent systems now use combinations of these methods to improve detection results and support identification, classification and evidence gathering.
The next step could be issuing a warning, and nothing more. In Ukraine for example, one tactic used was to avoid attacking the airborne system but instead, track it back to the recovery point and attack the area with indirect fire. The operators, in this case, were far more valuable targets than the systems. Tracking the device back to its recovery point can also be used in a law enforcement context.
Alternatively, a warning may be quickly followed by an attack. The attack could have the intention of simply destroying it, or it could be to disable, capture or even hijack.
Means of defeat can be physical or electronic in nature.
Blowing UAS out of the sky with anti-aircraft missiles or automatic cannons might be OK on the battlefield, but it is expensive and not very well suited to civilian areas where behind target effects might be more serious than the attack.
Beyond highly kinetic means, and accepting geofencing and NOTAMS might only have limited utility against those with determination and malicious intent the two principle means of defeat are electronic and physical.
Electronic attacks might include exploiting a cyber-vulnerability to remotely hijack the device, usually over WiFi or Bluetooth. An example of this is the Maldrone malware. However, with an increasing regulatory concern for flight safety, consumer devices will become increasingly difficult to exploit. Randomised frequency hopping and encryption for control links are being implemented on newer devices. Attacks against the GPS subsystems have proven to be effective but again, secondary positioning with GLONASS and inertial systems may blunt even this.
Active RF jamming seems to be the most common active denial approach in the newer systems.
As can be imagined, it is an increasingly healthy marketplace, with all the defence primes and many SME’s now offering product solutions.
Two such integrated solutions from the UK are the Selex ES Falcon Shield and AUDS.
The Anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS) from Blighter Surveillance Systems, Chess Dynamics and Enterprise Control Systems. Chess Dynamics bring their Hawkeye EO/IR and tracking system that allows the operator to manually confirm and identify the target that has been detected by the Blighter A400 Ku surveillance radar, the Enterprise RF jammer making sure the target is no longer a threat.
The AUDS system is designed to be easily deployable.
The latest iteration of AUDS includes a fourth RF inhibitor (jammer) band and an optical jammer.
From Selex ES, the Falcon Shield is a similar integrated system.
System components can be combined for wide area coverage.
Other systems include Battelle Drone Defender, Airbus Defence Counter UAV, Thales Squire, Dedrone Drone Tracker, ISL Drone Detection, Drone Dome from Rafael, Diehl HPEM, ART Drone Sentinel, Black Sage UAVX and IAI Elta Drone Guard.
No doubt more will emerge as the market expands.
In Ukraine, Russian forces/rebels have reportedly jammed the OSCE Monitoring Mission Schiebel Camcopters, disrupting GPS. No hard evidence exists for which type of equipment was used but odds on favourite is either the Rtut-BM (Mercury) or Krasuha-4 systems, both from Kret, all speculation of course.
Most of them seem to have effective ranges that max out at approximately 6-10km, less for very small UAS. None of them are optimised for moving vehicles and the market is generally focussing on fixed infrastructure protection.
The Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, Dutch National Police and the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (military police) have initiated a number of projects to investigate means of detecting, classifying and neutralising small unmanned ‘drone’ style systems. Read more here and although the project has a modest budget of 1.75m Euros it has attracted a great deal of interest. Less focussed on the military context, the project is looking at drone incursion into controlled airspaces like airports and critical national infrastructure, smuggling in prisons, ‘snooping’ and crimes against the person. More recently, France has initiated a similar project, no doubt in response to the nuclear site overflights that were so widely publicised. The US Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security are conducting field trials of counter ‘drone’ technology in Washington.
Physical disruption can mean many things, simply shooting them out of the sky with a shotgun or automatic weapon is the obvious choice but this method has complications in built up areas and against a rapidly manoeuvring vehicle will be very difficult. One of the Dutch project participants, Delft Dynamics, has developed a concept called Project Drone Catcher that uses another quadcopter to fire a grappling net at the target machine. The net can be tethered to the launch device which allows both to descend under control. Using one drone to destroy another with an intentional collision has also been demonstrated, even eagles have been demonstrated as being able to be trained in the counter UAS role.
Michigan Technology University has developed a net firing hexacopter.
An interesting counter small UAS system has been developed by the UK company, OpenWorks Engineering, called SkyWall. SkyWall uses a physical capture method to ensure drones are removed from sensitive areas.
Although the MoD’s response to the small UAS threat has not been widely publicised, it is not ignoring it. DSTL have a number of projects running under Project BRISTOW.
One of the more recent developments using the about to enter service 40mm CTA cannon is the Thales RAPIDFire system, designed to destroy helicopters, unmanned vehicles and combat aircraft.
Lasers will also likely play a role in future battlefield counter UAS.
DARPA is also starting to look at the issue;
The DARPA RFI will include;
- Conceptual designs and performance capabilities, including substantiating preliminary performance data, if available, for the concept of operation(s)
- Technology maturity assessment, including data to substantiate technology maturity and identification of key risk areas requiring mitigation to enable system demonstration
- Program outline for maturing the system to the point where it would be ready for demonstration, including high-level rough order of magnitude (ROM) cost and schedule
- System affordability assessment
- Estimated size, weight, and power requirements
- Ability to address other threats (any part of the targeting chain)
- Ability to integrate third-party subsystems
No doubt, some of the systems above may find their way into the DARPA studies.
The majority of this post has examined small commercial UAS from the perspective of them being a threat, something that is used against us.
But flip that coin, if they are a threat, they are also an opportunity, if we can become agile enough to exploit it.
We know of the counter UAS systems being marketed by UK manufacturers so the first thing the MoD should do is just buy a handful of them, yes I know we are already doing some fairly low key development work and the MoD/Home Office may have already purchased without any fanfare, but the UK defence export market is helped by the UK buying its own products.
If the discrete counter-terror market remains discrete, the other opportunity is for a base and deployed forces protection.
There are already a number of existing capabilities and projects that could be augmented with C-UAS technology, base protection ISTAR and area air defence for example. For those systems that are perhaps more focused on static location protection, let’s mount them on a MAN SV truck or Land Rover and deploy them on an exercise (and be showy about it).
This will create energy and opportunity in defence export markets.
The systems can also be exploited directly by the MoD.
We have seen recently how the Royal Navy has deployed small-scale commercial UAS on HMS Protector, a great example, but more of this is needed from all three services. The Army’s Urban Warrior and Mad Scientist streams have also deployed small UAS for urban area experimentation but this was some time ago, we need to be a bit louder.
Unmanned systems in a military context are obviously nothing new.
The British Army uses the Desert Hawk fixed wing and Prox Dynamics Black Hornet nano rotary wing UAS for ISTAR tasks. The Honeywell T-Hawk is also used for C-IED support.
UAS are nothing new for the British Army.
These are excellent systems but they are expensive and therefore, not freely available for experimentation. With the lower cost commercial systems there should be a recognition of their shortcomings but because they are so cheap, they can be obtained in large quantities.
By treating them as a consumable, like ammunition or pyrotechnics, we can release them to subunits and let experimentation take place at the ‘grass roots’ level. Rather than rigidly controlled and cap badge centric exploitation of UAS, by letting subunits make their own mistakes, develop their own expertise and ideas, new uses will emerge.
I like the idea of unstructured experimentation, they are cheap enough to buy a handful of different types and let infantry platoon commanders loose with them. Let’s get them out onto an exercise area and not worry about breaking them, but see how they could be deployed in a section attack or fighting patrol at the lowest realistic level.
Armoured and Reconnaissance units likewise.
Instead of top down, free up the young Officers and Junior NCO’s to get on with it, who, let’s face it, are going to be more familiar and comfortable with the technology.
Even if they were used for post training analysis, it would be a benefit, a library of aerial footage of sections attacks disseminated across DII allows best practice to be quickly shared.
As these ideas of a concept of use develop on cheap surrogate devices, they can be transitioned onto more military oriented devices.
Allowing ideas to percolate up from the lowest level is the quickest way to exploit emerging technologies like UAS, keeping them firmly in the grip of the Royal Artillery may put brakes on this platoon/section level usage.
If nothing else, we should utilise them in OPFOR development, we must assume we will face enemy forces that have these commercial systems.
The Royal Air Force has begun experimentation for aircraft inspection, a great use of the technology. Is there any applications for deployed force usage, perhaps force protection and the RAF Regiment might use them. The Royal Marines, likewise, there are waterproof models available, so why not have a few mounted on a TD2400 hovercraft and use them for extending the horizon, or providing an overwatch capability for a non-hostile vessel boarding.
The point here is to absolutely recognise that they might not be 100% robust enough or not 100% secure enough, but bottom up conceptual development is more important than the technology, simply because the technology can be adapted for military use.
This is an exciting market that the UK has a great start in, there are loads of UK organisations developing and delivering all manner of systems for different markets, we also have a very good set of test ranges and facilities in Wales. As components fall in price and new materials and battery technology become available, small UAS will move past the government and hobbyist markets and into mainstream commercial applications, as above, in many cases, they already are.
The next real stage of development will be software, connecting collection devices with cloud-based and on-board applications. Computing power, especially lightweight computing power, will see increasingly sophisticated image analysis and flight control software to be deployed. Artificial intelligence and learning software will become viable to be carried onboard.
They represent a real threat to security and deployed force protection.
We must, therefore, bring them into training, doctrinal and systems development activities, accelerating current programmes that are perhaps more focussed on static location protection and get them into the hands of young Officers and Junior NCO’s.
The more we experiment with them, the more we will be able to both counter and exploit this rapidly moving technology.
Flat footed, we should not be.