The Military May Soon Buy The Same Drones You Do

Tiny drones could scout high-rise buildings and underground tunnels for possible threats to US troops in cities of the future. But instead of spending years cooking up the necessary drone technologies in military research labs, the Pentagon might be better off shopping for the latest civilian drones coming soon to stores.

US military leaders have discussed the need for a new generation of scout drones for some time. After all, kicking down doors is a dirty and dangerous business for US troops trying to clear enemy-held buildings. It would be far safer to deploy diminutive drone buddies to provide an initial peek inside, and identify any potential threats.

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While the military already deploys several types of drone, their biggest limitation in urban environments is that they can’t negotiate building interiors, says Paul Scharre, project director for the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. Large, aircraft-size Predator and Reaper military drones circling overhead cannot spot enemy insurgents or snipers hidden inside buildings or underground tunnel networks.

Off the Shelf

Many consumer drones can already do quite a bit without human supervision, Scharre points out. Some behave like flying paparazzi cameras that can automatically trail their human owners in “follow me” mode. And companies such as DJI and Yuneec offer drones with rudimentary collision-avoidance technology.

Commercial drones still aren’t quite ready for military action, according to Major Jeffrey Persons, head of the Aviation Combat Element Branch at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. For starters, they’ll need not to be so reliant on their human operators. That means advanced collision-avoidance, and the “ability to navigate in tight quarters without the aid of GPS,” Persons says. They would also need automatic target recognition software to identify indoor threats for US troops waiting outside.

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Some emerging drone technologies could help overcome those limitations. First, LIDAR sensors that use laser pulses to map the surrounding area could identify obstacles to avoid. And second, vision-aided navigation could help drones navigate without GPS by visually comparing its position with non-moving objects in the environment. Such technologies are still in the testing phases, but could enter the civilian market within the next several years. “Right now, quadcopters aren’t really good enough to do the obstacle avoidance and indoors navigation that would be needed, but the technology is right around the corner,” Scharre says.

“The Army routinely uses off-the-shelf commercial technology, especially in material development areas such as small unmanned aerial systems,” says Ben Garrett, chief of public affairs at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, an Army training center at Fort Benning in Georgia.

Meanwhile, Robert Neller, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, has said his goal is for every deployed Marine infantry squad to have their own quadcopter for aerial reconnaissance by the end of 2017, though it’s not clear how he plans to obtain them.

Custom Build

While the pace of commercial drone technology advances quickly, any off-the-shelf product would still need serious modifications to be battle-ready. That means becoming rugged enough to survive a variety of battlefield conditions. But they would also need to resist enemy attempts to hack their communications or control.

To their credit, at least some US military leaders seem to recognize that bureaucracy as usual won’t cut it. The military’s small drone programs need to be nimble enough to accommodate and take advantage of frequent technological advances, says LtCol Noah Spataro, UAS Capabilities Integration & Requirements Officer for the US Marine Corps’ Capabilities Development Directorate.

“The US Marine Corps is not taking a traditional developmental approach to this problem set,” Spataro says. “We are working with the US Army on analysis and gap identification, while closely following maturing technologies for tailored integration.

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