Warplanes: Something The Batman Would Hang On His Belt

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June 28, 2017: Since 2013 a growing number of countries have been spending a lot of money (up to $200,000 each) for the Black Hornet PD-100, a very tiny (10x2.5 cm/4x1 inch) and lightweight (16 g, less than half an ounce) helicopter UAV. The rotor diameter is 12 cm (4.8 inches). Developed by a Norwegian firm and first used in by British commandos in Afghanistan during 2013, it was noticed by other special operations troops there, especially from U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and by 2014 American troops were testing Black Hornet, suggested some new features and by 2015 were using it in combat. By then the British had bought over 300 Black Hornets. Despite the high cost, in the hands of well-trained troops it increased combat capabilities considerably and saved lives for the troops using it. By 2017 over 4,000 Black Hornets had been purchased by military and police forces in more than 20 countries, most of them NATO members.

What makes Black Hornet so useful is that is virtually undetectable at night because it is battery powered (for up to 25 minutes per sortie) can operate autonomously and transmit pictures and video back to the operator via an encrypted datalink or store them onboard for viewing when the UAV returns to the operator. A cellphone size controller enables the user to view images and the UAV is stored in a small box that can be attached to the troops like ammo or other gear already is. When recharged the UAV is launched from that box and can be controlled up to 1,600 meters from the operator, who can guide the UAV and zoom the camera. The PD-100 also carries GPS, a thermometer, compass and altitude sensor. Max speed is 10 meters a second (36 kilometers/22.5 miles an hour) and max altitude is about 500 meters. In Afghanistan British and American special operations troops found the PF-100 ideal for reconnaissance and spotting snipers as well as searching inside buildings or cave entrances. Even though the commandos had night vision gear they can’t normally see around corners or on the other side of walls or other obstacles. Since the enemy could not see or hear the PD-100 at night they were often taken by surprise because they thought they were well hidden in the dark.

The PD-100 can stay in the air for 20-25 minutes per sortie depending on how much time it spends hovering (low battery use) or moving high and fast (uses a lot more battery power). The PD-100 is made of hard plastic and one can be ready for action in less than a minute. A complete system (two UAVs and the controller) weighs less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds). The body of the PD-100 is designed to handle winds well, making it quite stable for its size. It is the ultimate infantry UAV. The PD-100 is ideal in urban areas or forests.

Special operations troops are used to being enterprising and inventive and they quickly developed many new uses for the PD-100. While becoming an expert user can take hundreds of hours of combat use, you can be taught basic operating skills in less than 20 minutes and there is apparently computer simulator software so owners can develop skills.

By 2015 the manufacturer had figured out how to get a night vision vidcam on the PD-100. And is seeking ways to reduce the high cost. The PD-100 still costs about $200,000 each. The high cost is due to many custom parts as well as the need to recover development costs and use skilled people to hand assemble each one.

UAVs like the PD-100 and larger ones (like Raven) that can still be carried by the infantry had bigger impact on infantry operations than the wide use of after aerial reconnaissance a century ago that revolutionized warfare, for generals and colonels, not for small infantry units. About a century after the first aircraft flew this new, tiny and radical new aerial technology took air recon to a new level. That level is low, a few hundred meters off the ground. It all began in the American military after September 11, 2001 when the concept of tiny UAVs rapidly developed into a fleet of nearly 6,000 small (under ten kg/11 pounds) UAVs in use by American ground troops. Traditional U.S. military aviators, and the 10,000 manned aircraft they operate, were somewhat disdainful of these tiny, unmanned, aircraft. But for the troops on the ground, they are a lifesaver and the key to many victories. This sort of thing has happened before.

Just as the first recon aircraft a century ago changed the way armies fought, the micro-UAVs have changed the way small units of soldiers fight. A century ago the aerial observers reported to generals and their staffs. The commanders with troops in contact with the enemy rarely got the aerial photos and whatever information they got was hours or days old when it reached the combat zone. In the late 20th century the army began using its own helicopters and light aircraft, with observers talking to commanders below via radio, to give the troops some immediate intel on the enemy. But now UAV video goes to platoon or company commanders, or the leader of a small Special Forces team in real time. The lightweight, hand launched Raven UAV can only stay airborne about an hour per sortie, but troops have found that this is enough time to do all sorts of useful work, even when there's no fighting going on. This is most of the time. The Black Hornet, in the air for about 20 minutes, proved to be very useful.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy did not want to confront U.S. troops directly (this tends to get you killed). So there was an unceasing effort to set up ambushes, plant mines and roadside bombs, and fire rockets or mortars at American bases. All of these activities were much less effective against troops equipped with Raven or similar UAVs. U.S. troops learned how to think like the enemy, and quickly figured out the best ambush positions, or places to plant mines or fire rockets. By sending micro-UAVs over these spots periodically the enemy was put in danger of being spotted. The enemy knew that usually led to a prompt attack from American mortars or helicopter gunships. These mind games, of sneaking around trying to get a shot off at the Americans, was more stressful and dangerous if the U.S. troops had Ravens. And most of them do.

By 2012 the U.S. Army had over 5,000 RQ-11 Raven UAVs, which were popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. The army developed better training methods which enabled operators to get more out of Raven. Combat troops use it for finding and tracking the enemy, while non-combat troops use it for security (guarding bases or convoys). In both cases, troops have come to use the Raven for more than just getting a look over the hill or around the corner. The distinctive noise of Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below and is often used to scare the enemy away, or make him move to where he can be spotted.

The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11B), was introduced in 2007, a year after the original Raven entered service in large numbers. This UAV is inexpensive ($35,000 each) and can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. The Raven is battery powered (and largely silent unless flown close to the ground). It carries a color day vidcam, or a two color infrared night camera. It can also carry a laser designator. Both cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a handheld controller, which uses a hood to shield the display from direct sunlight (thus allowing the operator to clearly see what is down there). The Raven can go as fast as 90 kilometers an hour but usually cruises at between 40 and 50. It can go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller, and usually flies a preprogrammed route, using GPS for navigation.

The Raven is made of Kevlar, the same material used in helmets and protective vests. On average, Raven can survive about 200 landings before it breaks something. While some Ravens have been shot down, the most common cause of loss is losing the communications link (as the aircraft flies out of range) or a software/hardware failure on the aircraft. Combat losses have been high, as nearly 20,000 have been built and most of those have been lost in training or the battlefield. A complete system (controller, spare parts, and three UAVs) costs $250,000. The UAV can be quickly taken apart and put into a backpack. It takes off by having the operator start the motor, and then throwing it. This can be done from a moving vehicle and the Raven is a popular recon tool for convoys. It lands by coming in low and then turning the motor off. Special Forces troops like to use it at night, because the enemy can’t see it, and often can’t hear it either.

The controller allows the operator to capture video, or still pictures, and transmit them to other units or headquarters. The operator often does this while the Raven is flying a pre-programmed pattern (using GPS). The operator can have the UAV stop and circle, in effect keeping the camera on the same piece of ground below. The operator can also fly the Raven, which is often used when pursuing hostile gunmen.

Raven, and nearly a thousand slightly larger UAVs, don't get much publicity, but they have a larger impact on combat than the few hundred much larger (Shadow, Predator, Reaper) UAVs. These big, and often armed, UAVs carry out vital missions, but comprise a tenth of the airtime that the micro-UAVs rack up. Moreover, these smaller UAVs have opened up lots of other possibilities. There are already small, single use UAVs that are basically guided bombs. Even smaller UAVs can be used for spying, as well as battlefield recon. These little aircraft are having an enormous impact on warfare, rivaling what happened a century ago.

 


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