Infantry: The Tiny Wonder Gets Better And Cheaper


March 31, 2019: The U.S. Army has ordered over 600 Black Hornet PRS (Personal Reconnaissance System) helicopter UAVs. The PRS is a larger (12.3 cm/4.8 inch rotor diameter) and heavier (33 g, 1.16 ounce) version of the original PD-100 model that was both smaller (10 cm/3.9 inch rotor diameter) and lighter (16 g, about half an ounce). The Army and Marines had tested PD-100 in 2015 and concluded that they needed some night vision and encrypted communications before they could buy. FLIR, the manufacturer noted that many of their existing and prospective military customers had made similar suggestions so the PRS model was developed.

What makes any model of the 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 can now 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 operator to view images. The Black Hornet is stored in a small box that can be attached to the troops' webbing like ammo or other gear already is. When recharged the UAV is launched from that box and can be controlled up to 2,000 meters from the operator, who can also zoom the camera. The Black Hornet also carries GPS, a thermometer, compass and altitude sensor. PRS max speed is six meters a second (21 kilometers/13.5 miles an hour) and max altitude is about 500 meters. In Afghanistan, British and American special operations troops found the PD-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 new thermal night vision is lower res (160x120 pixels for pix or video) while the day camera is good for 1600x1200 for pix and 640x480 for video. The lower resolution night vision image has not proved to be a problem.

The PRS can stay in the air for up to 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). It takes about 25 minutes to charge a Black Hornet (from the carrying case) so you can have one in continual use by constantly recharging one while the other is in action. The Black Hornets are 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 Black Hornet is designed to handle winds well, making it quite stable for its size. The PRS can handle sustained winds of up to 27 kilometers (17 miles per hour) and gusts of up to 36 kilometers an hour (23 miles an hour). With these upgrades has become ultimate infantry UAV because of its capabilities and stealth.

The Black Hornet is ideal in urban areas or forests. Since 2013 a growing number of countries have been spending a lot of money (up to $200,000 each early on) for the Black Hornet. Developed by a Norwegian firm and first used in by British commandos in Afghanistan during 2013, it was noticed by other special operations personnel there, especially U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) operators and by 2014 American troops were testing Black Hornet, suggested some new features and by 2015 were testing them 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 2019 over 5,000 Black Hornets had been purchased by military and police forces in more than 20 countries, most of them NATO members. The price has come down with the PD-100 going for about $40,000 each and the PRS for about 50 percent more. The military buys large quantities and gets volume discounts.

The recent U.S. Army purchase is to equip small units for special situations, like night patrols or any recon in urban areas. It takes about 20 minutes to learn how to use Black Hornet. Special operations troops get to use their Black Hornets regularly and are used to being enterprising and inventive and they quickly developed many new uses. While becoming an expert user can take hundreds of hours of combat experience, new users have confirmed that basic operating skills can indeed be mastered 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 but the encrypted data link took a little longer. There were also efforts to reduce the high cost and that has been achieved as well. Originally the PD-100 cost over $100,000 each. The high-cost initial cost was 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/PRS and larger ones (like Raven) that can still be carried by the infantry had a bigger impact on infantry operations than the wide use of after aerial reconnaissance a century ago that revolutionized warfare, for generals and colonels but 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 front lines. 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 (which is most of the time). The Black Hornet proved to be even more useful because when used by an experienced operator it can remain undetected by the enemy, who is then vulnerable to all manner of nasty surprises.

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 did by 2007.

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 often 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.

One additional problem was discovered when major combat operations for the army and marines ended in 2008. Budgets were cut and that created the usual pressure to keep expenses low. This was a problem for UAVs like Raven, some of which got destroyed even during training. Naturally, restrictions were put on use of Ravens in peacetime. This proved to be a mistake because when these units did get sent back into combat commanders found that they had many troops unfamiliar with using Raven and not only used them less effectively but lost more of them due to operational causes or enemy action.

Many troops preferred inexpensive quadcopters, which they bought themselves. There were soon bans on using these because they were had unencrypted comm links and most were made by Chinese firms. Those rules are still in effect but many combat commanders quietly allow troops to use them with the knowledge that it was easier to obtain forgiveness than ask permission. Even with the unencrypted comms and threat of hidden Chinese features (that would cripple the quadcopters in combat), the troops were successful with the quadcopters used against irregulars and for base security. After all many Islamic terrorists and other irregular forces (even bandits and criminals in general) used the same quadcopters. But specialized UAVs like Black Hornet were not commercial items and the PRS models were only sold to military or police organizations.


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