Infantry: When Seconds Count

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June 23, 2018: Since 2011 military and police customers in over 30 countries have ordered over 5,000 Black Hornet PD-100 micro-UAVs. This UAV is tiny and very inexpensive. It’s popularity springs from the fact that the Black Hornet provides stealthy reconnaissance of the enemy in the minutes or seconds you go on the attack. No other UAV has been able to provide that kind of information and for that reason, troops (and police) who regularly face dangerous and unpredictable situation see Black Hornet as a long wished for lifesaver.

Black Hornet is a unique, very tiny (10x2.5 cm/4x1 inch) and lightweight (16 g, less than half an ounce) helicopter UAV. The rotor diameter is 12 cm (4.8 inches). Developed by a Norwegian firm and first used in by British commandos in Afghanistan during 2013, it was noticed by other special operations troops there, especially from U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and by 2014 American troops were testing Black Hornet, suggested some new features and by 2015 were using it in combat. By then the British had bought over 300 Black Hornets. Suggestions from early users resulted in Black Hornet 2, which had the same performance as the first version but was cheaper (under $50,000 per UAV) and more reliable. Despite the high cost, in the hands of well-trained troops, it increased combat capabilities considerably and saved lives of the troops using it. By 2017 the lower cost and rave reviews saw many more potential customers (most of them NATO members) trying it out and then placing orders. The latest customer is the Australian Army, which will make Black Hornet 2 available to infantry and armored units as well as special operations forces. Black Hornet 2 can easily be used from inside an armored vehicle without any of the crew exposing themselves to enemy fire. This made Black Hornet 2 very attractive for armored units training for urban combat.

A complete Black Hornet system consists of two UAVs, the base station (with detachable wireless handled controller) and a small tablet type display unit which can be viewed while sitting on the users’ chest via a strap around the neck. The user has the base station in a pocket. The user is thus fully mobile and has his weapon handy if needed. This degree of portability was especially useful for special operations operators who often put Black Hornet to work just before an attack to confirm the location of the target and any nearby civilians. Infantry and police SWAT units also used Black Hornet this way, providing last second (rather than minute) dangers.

The complete system (two UAVs and all other gear) weigh 1.3 kg (under three pounds) and fit into a compact and sturdy case. A user can have a Black Hornet operational in less than a minute, including booting up the controller and doing a self-check. Black Hornet is launched and recovered from the open hand of the operator. When used from a vehicle the only thing visible is a small antenna outside the vehicle. The operator opens a hatch, lets the UAV fly off and then closes the hatch.

What makes Black Hornet so useful is that is virtually undetectable at night because it is battery powered (for up to 25 minutes per sortie) and can operate autonomously and transmit HD pictures and lower def video back to the operator via an encrypted datalink or store them onboard for viewing when the UAV returns to the operator. The small system case can be attached to the troops like ammo or other gear already is. The UAVs can be recharged in the carrying case. The UAV can be controlled up to 1,600 meters from the operator, who can guide the UAV and zoom the camera and select the type of images to send back. The PD-100 also carries GPS, a thermometer, compass and altitude sensor. Max speed is 10 meters a second (36 kilometers/22.5 miles an hour) and max altitude is about 500 meters and it can hover. The Black Hornet 2 weighs 18 g (.55 ounce) and can handle wind gusts of up 43 kilometers (27 miles) an hour. In Afghanistan British and American special operations, troops found the PF-100 ideal for reconnaissance and spotting snipers as well as searching inside buildings or cave entrances, even at night because Black Hornet has night vision in addition to the standard higher def day camera.

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. At night the Black Hornet is virtually impossible to detect, a feature special operations users put to the test frequently. Even in daylight Black Hornet is difficult to hear although if you are looking real had for little bird-sized objects that hover, you could spot on nearby.

The PD-100 can stay in the air for 20-25 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). The PD-100 is made of hard plastic and it was designed to be the ultimate infantry UAV. Only later was it found to equally invaluable for armored vehicles operating in congested places like urban areas or forests.

Special operations troops are used to being enterprising and inventive and they quickly developed many new uses for the PD-100. While becoming an expert user can take hundreds of hours of combat use, you can be taught basic operating skills in less than 20 minutes and there is computer simulator software so users can develop operating skills without risking loss or damage to an expensive UAV (on a cost per kilo basis, which is over $600,000).

By 2015 the manufacturer had figured out how to get a night vision vidcam on the PD-100 and fund ways to reduce the high cost. The PD-100 originally cost nearly $100,000 each. The initial high 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. Since 2013 components have been produced in large quantities and assembly uses more automation.

The manufacturer has developed a larger (38 gr/1.1 ounce) Black Hornet 3 which will not replace Black Hornet 3 but complement it. Black Hornet 3 has higher resolution day and night sensors and moves faster, farther and does this for longer periods. The larger and heavier Black Hornet 3 is even more resistant to wind gusts.

UAVs like Black Hornet are so small and light that they are not considered a flight risk for manned aviation and that led to their popularity with police departments. Black Hornet 3 is also a “non-threat” and contains features most requested by users.

UAVs like the PD-100 and larger ones (like Raven) that can still be carried by the infantry had a bigger impact on infantry operations than the introduction of frequent aerial reconnaissance a century ago. The aircraft based air reconnaissance revolutionized warfare, for generals and colonels but not so much 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 combat zone. 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. This is most of the time. The Black Hornet, in the air for about 20 minutes, proved to be very useful despite the availability of Raven.

Because of Raven, better training and leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy did not want to confront U.S. troops directly (this tended 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 do.

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. By then the first Black Hornet was available and, despite the high price, began to gain a following among those who needed the kind of aerial recon only a tiny, silent hovering UAV could provide.

Meanwhile Raven had already matured. 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 usually 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, like Black Hornet, 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.

 


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