Military Scout Drones Could Look More Familiar Than You Expect

A great deal of the technology we employ in everyday civilian can trace its development back to military origins. Investment in military research and development has provided us with everything from microwave ovens to GPS. The next years could see this situation somewhat turned on its head, however, as generals look to civilian drones to provide a solution to a long-standing tactical problem.

Before we began to associate drones with amateur tech enthusiasts, racing pilots and videographers, we commonly used the word ‘drone’ to refer to unmanned aircraft systems, such as Predator and Reaper UAVs. These large, fixed-wing drones became notorious for their impersonal and deadly bombing missions in Middle-Eastern theaters of war. They were, and are still, used for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering purposes. Their roles, however, are limited by their size – they can circle high above an enemy compound or a city block, but they are too large to enter these buildings.

MQ-1 Predator drone

In order to clear a building, the military still relies on a method which is distinctly dated and extremely dangerous – it inevitably falls to small squads or fireteams to kick down doors, all the time looking out for booby traps and enemy personnel, with little or no foreknowledge of the structural plan or inhabitants of the building. Over the years, this method of door to door urban warfare has ended up causing countless unnecessary deaths – friendly, enemy and civilian, from Berlin to Baghdad.

Paul Scharre, project director for the Center for a New American Security’s 20YY Warfare Initiative, believes that modified drones of the type you might see in your neighbor’s back yard could finally provide the answer. Unlike the smallest military drones, such as Pumas and Ravens, these drones have little difficulty flying indoors, negotiating stairwells, small windows and tunnels. Furthermore, they are quiet and small enough to carry out indoor reconnaissance with a lower risk of being detected. Drones of this size already carry high definition cameras with night sight, infrared and other modifications, and defense bosses could easily find there are relatively few adaptations needed.

Some may scoff at the gimmicky idea of small drones shooting projectiles and carrying various modules but this concept may soon be adapted by the military for urban warfare.

The potential scope of operations for such small drones is also of interest – aside from reconnaissance and espionage, these drones could be used to disarm traps, send messages, disrupt communications, destroy enemy equipment and attack the enemy.

Reflecting on this, Scharre notes “I think there’s a lot of opportunities for the military if they harness commercial technology, modify it for their specific purpose, and field it for urban reconnaissance drones.”

Scout drones are already being used to assist Western-backed Iraqi and Kurdish troops in the ongoing battle for the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. On both sides of the front line, the types of drones commonly seen on retail shelves are being put to use in scouting and sabotage missions, with each side trying to gain an advantage in the four month struggle.

The new generation of civilian drones seems almost tailor-made for military purposes, with ‘follow-me’ technology that enables the drone to independently track and follow targets. Major Jeffrey Parsons, head of the Aviation Combat Element Branch of the Marine Warfighting Laboratory, however, believes that further advances in intelligent tracking are still necessary in order to ready them for deployment in battle.

Parsons thinks that commercial drones need to improve when it comes to their “ability to navigate in tight quarters without the aid of GPS”. This, plus the addition of automatic target recognition software, would be required to provide information about any potential threats to troops waiting to enter the building.

With the advent of new technologies such as laser mapping and vision-aided navigation, it seems certain that small drones will become a fully integrated part of urban warfare operations in the near future. Robert Neller, Commandant of the US Marine Corps is already on record as saying that every deployed Marine infantry squad should have their own scout drone by the end of the year.

Andrew Maxwell

Andrew is a former journalist who now works as a freelance writer specializing in tech and gadgets. He currently resides in Thailand.

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