May 16, 2020:
An Israeli firm has introduced the Firefly new loitering munition UAV, which is portable enough for infantry to carry and continually reuse. There is also a useful option to replace one of the two batteries with explosive warheads and turn Firefly into a guided weapon. Another major advantage of Firefly is that it operates like a helicopter, not a fixed-wing aircraft. Being able to hover is a major advantage for loitering munitions used by infantry. What Firefly seems to have done is address all (or most) of the user criticisms of earlier lightweight loitering munition systems.
Firefly was developed by Rafael, the same firm that developed and builds the Spike family of ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). Much of the tech in Firefly was based on what is already used in Spike systems. In particular, Firefly has a guidance system that can track and attack a moving target. This can be critical for infantry using such a weapon, because these targets are elusive in the first place and without a UAV the infantry would not have spotted dangers like snipers or moving troops at all.
Firefly is a dual rotor miniature helicopter and those dual (on top of each other) rotors make it stable in winds that would make a similar-sized fixed-wing or quad-copter UAV unusable. The .4 kg (one pound) warhead can be replaced by a second battery to provide 30 minutes of flight time. When using the warhead Firefly can stay in the air for 15 minutes. The operator uses a small tablet device that is mostly a touch screen and Firefly controller. Firefly can be controlled up to 500 meters in a built-up (or forested) area or up to 1,500 meters in line-of-sight (nothing between Firefly and operator) mode. Firefly returns to the operator if the control signal is lost. The operator can press an icon on the screen to get Firefly to return immediately, abort an attack or carry out a high speed (19 meters/62 feet a second) attack on a target. The target can be moving, as in a sniper changing firing positions out of sight of the operator. This is accomplished using the ability of the Firefly guidance system to remember the shape of a target and follow it. The Firefly warhead would be most often used against troublesome targets like snipers or hidden machine-guns. Even without the warhead Firefly would be able to locate such lethal adversaries and enable the infantry to avoid them. Firefly can also be launched and operated from a moving vehicle.
Firefly is not the first development in this area. In 2015 another Israeli firm introduced a similar but less capable Hero 30 system weighing 3 kg (6.6 pounds) for the infantry to carry and use. The Hero 30 has 30 minutes endurance and has a small warhead that can use used to turn it into a weapon if the onboard vidcam indentifies a target that has to be taken care of immediately. Otherwise, it can be landed and reused. Hero 30 was based on the older Hero 400 which weighs 40 kg and has an 8 kg (18 pound) warhead. Hero 400 has a four hour endurance and can operate up to 150 kilometers from the operator. But Israel noticed that the United States was having a lot of success (and demand from special operations and infantry units) for the similar (to Hero 30) Switchblade.
Switchblade was developed in the United States and, as soon as ground troops heard about it, the result was a lot of Internet chatter about why the troops didn’t have Switchblade. Thus motivated the U.S. Army to send some Switchblade systems to Afghanistan in 2009, for secret field testing. This was very successful and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. Initially, Switchblade was mainly used largely by special operations troops. In 2011, after a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblade UAVs for troop use and last year ordered more as regular infantry units got their hands on it and demanded more.
By 2012 the U.S. Army and Marine Corps had ordered hundreds of Switchblades because the combat zone testing proved so successful. Switchblade was developed for the army but the marines apparently noted the success that soldiers and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had with this system and ordered them as well. Switchblade was very popular with troops in Afghanistan and with SOCOM in all sorts of places they won’t discuss in detail. Switchblade is still used and thousands have been ordered and many of them used. There have been several upgrades
Switchblade is a one kilogram (2.2 pound) expendable (used only once) UAV that can be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery-powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. The Switchblade is operated using the same gear the larger (two kg/4.4 pound) Raven UAV employs. A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighs 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds).
In 2015 the marines successfully tested using Switchblade from an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. This showed that Switchblade could be used from helicopters and other slow-moving aircraft wanting to know what’s on the other side of the hill while avoiding getting shot at by any bad guys who are there.
Switchblade can also be launched from the existing 70mm rocket tubes used on army helicopters. Moving at up to a kilometer a minute, the Switchblade can stay in the air for 20-40 minutes (depending on whether or not it is armed with explosives). Switchblade can operate up to ten kilometers from the operator. The armed version can be flown to a target and detonated, having about the same explosive effect as a hand grenade. Thus, Switchblade enables ground troops to get at an enemy taking cover in a hard to see location. Switchblade completed development in 2009. Technically a guided missile, the use of Switchblade as a reconnaissance tool encouraged developers to refer to it as a UAV. But because of the warhead option, and its slow speed, Switchblade also functions like a rather small cruise missile. The troops were particularly enthusiastic about the armed version because it allowed them to easily take out snipers or a few bad guys in a compound full of civilians. It was these sort of situations that apparently led to systems like Firefly.
Switchblade has been so successful that the army has requested manufacturers to come up with a Switchblade 2.0. The new version is also called LMAMS (Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System). It is heavier with up to 30 minutes endurance and a 9 kilometer range. The sensor must have night vision and be stabilized. It must also be able to lock onto a target and track it. Not all the new features desired were added to Switchblade because of budget cuts. Firefly may eliminate the demand for Switchblade, if only because Switchblade was not a reusable system and not a helicopter.