Civilian Unmanned Airborne Systems – Threats an Opportunities

Defence and security capabilities, threats and opportunities in the civilian small UAS market.

Civilian Unmanned Airborne Systems (UAS) – 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

This article is split into five sections;

  • Introduction; this page
  • More than Toys although some of them are toys, many are not. Modern professional systems are used in agriculture, survey, civil engineering, telecommunications and other sectors where durability and capability are key requirements. As technology improves, those capabilities can be exploited in the defence sector.
  • Threats and Examples of Use; recent examples of criminal and combat-related use of low-cost civilian UAS and a discussion of potential threats as the technology matures.
  • Counters; in response to increasing use, the defence and security industry has responded with a wide variety of countermeasures.
  • Opportunities; if others can exploit this technology, why not the reverse, a look at potential means by which UK forces can use a low-cost civilian system derived UAS
  • Summary; a summary

Change Status

Change Date Change Record
 01/03/2017 initial issue
 05/05/2018  Various updates
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April 26, 2016 9:52 pm

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

The Other Chris
April 27, 2016 9:46 am

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.

April 27, 2016 10:53 am

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.

April 27, 2016 6:58 pm

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.

shark bait
April 28, 2016 5:08 pm

“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.

stephen duckworth
April 28, 2016 6:50 pm

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

April 29, 2016 8:32 am

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..

April 29, 2016 12:26 pm


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
El Sid
May 8, 2016 12:46 pm

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?)

Alf Alfa
Alf Alfa
March 15, 2017 11:03 am

Just seen the following on the BBC website:

A Patriot missile – usually priced at about $3m (£2.5m) – was used to shoot down a small quadcopter drone, according to a US general.
The strike was made by a US ally, Gen David Perkins told a military symposium.
“That quadcopter that cost 200 bucks from did not stand a chance against a Patriot,” he said.
Patriots are radar-targeted weapons more commonly used to shoot down enemy aircraft and ballistic missiles.
“Now, that worked, they got it, OK, and we love Patriot missiles,” the general said.
However, he suggested the strategy was probably not economically wise.
“I’m not sure that’s a good economic exchange ratio,” he told an audience at the Association of the United States Army’s Global Force symposium in Alabama.
“In fact, if I’m the enemy, I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I’m just gonna get on eBay and buy as many of these $300 quadcopters as I can and expend all the Patriot missiles out there’.”
‘Enormous overkill’
No further details of the encounter – such as how recently it took place – were given, but Gen Perkins did describe the party that launched the missile as “a very close ally”.
“It is clearly enormous overkill,” said Justin Bronk, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute.
“It certainly exposes in very stark terms the challenge which militaries face in attempting to deal with the adaptation of cheap and readily available civilian technology with extremely expensive, high-end hardware designed for state-on-state warfare.”

Think Defence ahead of the curve again. Interesting times ahead figuring this one out i would say.

March 16, 2017 8:07 pm

Iraqi forces use weaponised commercial drones

The Iraqi Federal Police (IFP) has become the first government force known to have used weaponised commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), copying a tactic that is being increasingly widely used by the Islamic State militants.

Ray Powell
July 23, 2017 4:17 am

I’ve been thinking along these lines as well, the ability of even the cheapest drone can be used as a weapon.
For the past few days I’ve been wondering how the ARMY could use drones especially in built up environments and Afghanistan, where a lot of insurgents fire from compounds.

But it’s the ability to take out substantial weapons suck as Tanks and APCs as Tanks now come with more sophisticated ani tank measures the drone could be used as a sacrifice weapons used in conjunction with Javilin .

But it’s the drones ability to be a pin point weapon intrigues me. When watching any programs about Afghanistan I see thousands of rounds fired when a well placed drone with a decent anti personal weapon such as a Claymore could do the hit in one.

Let’s face it warfare has completely changed since the introduction of the fighting drone.

Yes they can be jammed but the device sending the jamming signal becomes the target, Think Wild Weasel, but it’s all round ability to save life such as drop medical kit or extra Ammunition.

So I think drone warfare is the new future war .

Well it’s a thought any way

Ray Powell
July 23, 2017 1:36 pm

Well here goes, A weapon System that has always fascinated me is the Stridsvagn 103.
I feel with today’s modern electronic systems it could be a winner.
A radical update could help it no end , so look at combat in Afghanistan I watch British troops over loaded with kit.
I see thousands of rounds returned fire to no effect. The enemy hidden or behind 2-3 feet thick compound walls.

I’ve seen the Javilin used to great effect .
But I feel the troops could do with something that could be with them not perched on top of a hill giving fire support. So I suggest the Stridsvagn conversion to fire fire and forget missile’s Cutting the barrel length down dramatically.Of course keep the Dozer blade.

Now the fun part make it a drone carrier, these weapons are cheap very accurate and can give the troops effective fire power and on site air observation in real time .A bird dog type drone could hover over the battle sight helping troops spot the enemy.
These drones could be used to discourage dickers by landing on their vehicles or just photographing them close up.
Last I suggest that very large dustbin mortor like Hobart’s Funnies. These would have the ability to destroy the bunker type housing and combined with a anti personal potential kill anything within the compound.
It was found that the Mortor Version of Russian BMP was liked because the ability to drop the rounds in vertically.

Another weapon which could be used with it is Carl Gustav 84 , given the troops effective hitting ability it comes with a variety of shells . I see the Americans are having a very serious look at it again especially the new version.

Last give it a trailer to tow carrying more ammo/food/ water/medical kit.. Leave it with the troops make it electric so it can be steered by an umbilical cord. This is similar to the Mule system this vehicle could be multiple wheeled or tracked. Also towing it would keep its battery topped up .

I hope this gives you an idea of my thinking, please feel free to shoot it down so to speak.

If the Syrians can use a drone and a T72 Tank in built up environment, which is normally a No No area for tank , with some effect.
The drone giving it a forewarning view ahead via its operator .
Why can’t we use a simular system?

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