"Drones" are changing the world's view of aviation rapidly. At first, larger models such as the Predator and Global Hawk took center-stage in the public's consciousness, but now small unmanned aircraft, some the size of lunchbox or even smaller, are capturing the public's imagination and keeping defense and homeland security planners up at night.
As I have discussed for years, drones are going to start looking much more like organic species. The Army apparently agrees and sees the value of hiding in plain sight, this is why the service is rapidly acquiring dozens of "Maveric" bird like drones for its Special Forces teams. Maveric has about an hour of flight time per battery charge and can be deployed by a single soldier. Additionally, the small drone is silent to anyone on the ground when it is at altitude. The uses for such a system are both plentiful and obvious.
Smaller, more prolific drone technology, especially when it looks like an organic creature, does represent a double edged sword. In fact, almost all miniaturized drone technology that is spreading throughout the commercial and civilian world has a dark side.
These diminutive man-portable drones can be turned from surveillance assets and backyard toys to assassination tools by swapping out their payloads. Even the quad-rotor type hobbyist/commercial drones, like those controversially pimped to millions on 60 Minutes by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently, can carry around half a dozen pounds. Swap out that pair of earphones or cookbook you ordered online, or a DSLR camera when it comes to rudimentary commercial photography drones, with an improvised explosive device and you have a guided missile capable of some very horrific things. Now mutate that same capability into something that looks just like an ordinary bird and a clear and present problem emerges for those who work hard at protecting very important people and infrastructure.
The line between guided munitions and drones is blurring rapidly and will continue to do so as the defense industry realizes just how useful a small and optionally suicidal drone can be. Korea's Killer Devil is just one example of these new militarized surveillance drones that possess a secondary capability as a guided weapon.
Just recently we saw two "wake up call" moments when it comes to readily available drone technology and their potential to turn from a science project and weekend toy, or a cheap surveillance platform, to a deadly delivery vehicle. A Moroccan man was planning to attack schools and federal buildings in Connecticut with hobby-like drones. Luckily the man was busted before his heinous act could be executed. Then there was the revelation that North Korea was using rudimentary drones with DSLR cameras attached to take satellite-like imagery of key South Korean installations. The imagery that these uncomplicated drones took was of high quality but was not of great strategic importance, but the fact that these expendable drones that feature a relatively tiny radar signature were buzzing around South Korea, one of the most militarized places in the world, without anyone knowing, definitely was.
The South Koreans realized that if the North let off thousands of these drones with explosives attached instead of DSLR cameras they could cause great terror and fear. A V-1 Rocket of the modern era if you will. The whole event has brought on a movement to up South Korea's aerial surveillance game and sensitive radar systems mounted on aerostat balloons may be the solution along with a counter rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) system like Israel's Iron Dome (seen in action in the video below). But such a countermeasure capability will only come at an incredibly expensive cost.
As drone technology continues to develop you will see a new emphasis put on securing the airspace around VVIPs and very delicate but important infrastructure on a level greater than anything we have ever seen before. Whereas the threat from direct fire has been paramount when it comes to VVIP security, the focus will begin to morph more and more into protection against nontraditional indirect fire, aka small drones with evil payloads. The stark reality is that it is almost impossible to shoot a small drone down with traditional small arms (see video below), and those bullets travel long distances and end up impacting something or someone.
Currently, some C-RAM systems do have a latent counter-UAV capability. Systems like the ground based Phalanx called the Centurion, have a sensitive doppler radar and IR/EO search, track, and engage capability. But to be able to really protect one's "inner sphere" when exposed to the outside world, especially in urban areas where firing self destructing 20mm ammo at 4500 rounds per minute is not good politics, light speed weapons, along with jamming, are the future.
Currently, a laser version of the Navy's staple "Phalanx" Close In Weapons System is about to be deployed to the Persian Gulf for the first time and is capable of taking down small drones quickly, reliably and with minimal collateral damage. Although this system is becoming operationally capable, it does not solve the much more pressing issue of protecting often mobile VVIPs and critical infrastructure. This is where the Army's newly unveiled High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator's (HELMD) technology comes into play.
HELMD sports a 10kw laser mounted in a turret on a hardened wheeled vehicle. Soon it is said that the system will be increased to 50kw of laser energy which will greatly increase its ability to rapidly engage targets. Since the HELMD laser is solid state and does not rely on expensive and bulky chemicals for fuel it can do what a $50,000 Iron Dome missile does for just a few dollars per shot.
Additionally, these vehicles will eventually be capable of being integrated into sensitive radar systems and infrared search and track systems that provide 360' staring coverage. This means a operational system similar to the HELMD can be parked near a VVIP offloading from an airplane, or next to sensitive national infrastructure, and defend a line of sight sphere around it with great efficiency and unlimited followup shot potential.
Although the bird-like Maveric drone ,and other systems like it, are an innovative and a highly effective tool for our soldiers in the field, as time goes by such a stealthy capability could, and most likely would, be used against us. So don't be surprised when when you start seeing mobile laser systems like the HELMD popping up around critical US infrastructure and high priority targets and individuals in the near future. It is just another piece of twine in the exciting but also unsettling new world of unmanned weaponry. One where the word "drone" will increasingly be associated with both friend and foe…
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com