Competition among bird-sized unmanned air systems is growing
Small unmanned air systems have proven extremely popular with the military. 's 4-lb. RQ-11B Raven, for instance, outnumbers all of the other UAVs in the Pentagon's inventory put together. But competition from even smaller UAS with advanced capabilities is increasing.
“In a world of shrinking budgets, smaller systems may provide more acquisition value than the larger, more expensive systems,” says Bryan da Frota, CEO of Prioria Robotics.
Prioria makes the Maveric, which has a 28-in. wingspan and weighs just 2 lb. A $4.5 million contract from the U.S. Army's Rapid Equipping Force for 12 systems (including 36 aircraft) may open the way for further orders. Prioria says Maveric has more payload options than any other small UAS, including day, night, short-wave infra-red and other undisclosed options.
The Maveric also has another distinctive feature: It is carried in a tube with its carbon-fiber wings rolled up. When removed from the tube, the wings unfurl, and it is ready for launch. This makes the Maveric faster to deploy than the Raven, which requires some assembly after transport before it can be flown.
With a profile mimicking a soaring bird and a quiet electric motor, the Maveric is a good candidate for covert operations. It flies at up to 55 kt. for as long as 75 min., depending on the configuration.
Meanwhile, the Air Force Research Laboratory has funded the recent deployment of Aurora Flight Sciences' Skate UAS to Afghanistan, the first time it has been in theater. The Skate has a 24-in. wingspan and weighs less than 3 lb. It has an unusual design, with a rugged polyurethane foam body and two propellers, and can flip from vertical to horizontal flight. While the Skate may be slower than other small UAS, with a top speed of 50 kt., it can hover and fly inside buildings. It is hand-launched.
“The Skate systems were typically operated by small groups operating out of vehicles or other confined spaces, so the hand-launch and small recovery footprint were definitely utilized,” says Aurora spokeswoman Patricia Woodside. “Unlike other platforms, to become airborne, Skate requires a simple toss and does not require a running start.”
The Skate has intuitive ground control, many autonomous functions and a modular configuration. Users can quickly switch between payloads including day and night cameras, high-definition video and a laser illuminator.
An even smaller UAS is being developed by Norway's Prox Dynamics. In October, the U.S. Army's Rapid Innovation Fund awarded Prox Dynamics a $2.4 million contract for its Personal Reconnaissance System, which comprises a carry case, control unit and three helicopters, together weighing less than 2 lb. Each helicopter has a rotor diameter of about 5 in., weighs less than 1 oz., carries three cameras and has a 25-min. endurance.
British forces in Afghanistan have used Prox Dynamics' pocket-sized PD-100 Black Hornet helicopter since 2012. Flying such a small craft in adverse weather conditions would seem to be a challenge, but a British Defense Ministry official says that has not been a problem. Losses of the miniature helicopters have been quite high—18 at the last count—but this is largely ascribed to new users learning in difficult surroundings and conditions in the field.
“Inevitably, when users improve competency on the system, then the rate of vehicle losses will reduce,” the Defense Ministry official says. “Losses mainly center on the nature of operations, including usage in such a harsh environment in Afghanistan.”
The Hornet can fly at 30 fps. (20 mph), navigate independently to a target area using GPS, hover, and then land to “perch and stare” from a suitable flat surface, extending the mission time. The data link has a 1,000-meter (3,280-ft.) range, according to Prox Dynamics. The Defense Ministry says it does not intend to develop the Hornet beyond its current capability, but the involvement of the U.S. military may promote rapid development.
Asregulations change, these small UAS are likely to find many roles in the commercial sector, too. Da Frota says Prioria is evaluating how its systems can meet the requirements for public safety and agricultural uses.