In Afghanistan, both the Taliban and the Afghan security forces have become eager users of high-end Chinese-made DJI commercial quadcopters. A particular favorite is the DJI Matrice 200/210. This is an industrial-grade quadcopter costing up to $8,000 each. The DJI 210 weighs 4.7 kg (10.3 pounds) and can carry up to 1.45 kg (3.2 pounds) of cameras, additional batteries or improvised weapons. Max endurance is about 30 minutes and top speed is 60 kilometers an hour. When under user control the 210 can operate up to eight kilometers away although five kilometers is more likely. The 210 can be programmed to use its GPS/GLONASS navigation system to cover a specific route and return. If the control system is lost for any reason, the quadcopter will automatically return to where it started and land. While the 210 is mainly used for surveillance and reconnaissance, some have been equipped with an explosives dispenser. Anything from grenades to IED (improvised explosive devices) can be used. The 210 can be rigged as a one-way “cruise missile” but that is expensive and rarely done. High-end models like the 210 are favored because they are rugged and can handle wind and incorporate obstacle avoidance. This is important when operating in urban areas, forests or at night using a night-vision camera.
While popular with Islamic terrorists, gangsters and less-well equipped police and military units, Western forces tend to avoid DJI products because of fears that China may have ordered the manufacturer to include secret features that would allow the Chinese military to disable to take-control of DJI products. No one has ever found such a “back door” in the quadcopter software and these Chinese quadcopters, especially those made by DJI, are the most popular models worldwide. That’s because DJI models offered are the best value as well as being the most reliable.
Sometimes these bans were issued after troops had already obtained and were using DJI quadcopters. For example in early 2018 the U.S. Marine Corps has announced a new squad and platoon organization, based on its experience so far this century, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the unique changes to the new 12 man squad was that each one would get a commercial quadcopter. These were smaller, more compact models costing less than two thousand dollars each. The Marines had already bought 600 and ordered another 200 when the U.S. Department of Defense ordered a ban on the use of Chinese made quadcopters. The Marines did manage to get an exemption to the new ban and are also seeking a government approved quadcopter to purchase. These are out there but none as inexpensive and as the Chinese models.
The U.S. Army banned the use of DJI quadcopters in 2017. The troops had been encountering these DJI quadcopters in combat zones for years and some troops had bought them with their own money to use (successfully) in combat. It’s no secret that DJI quadcopters have been showing up in combat zones with increasing frequency since 2014. Initially the most popular of these was the DJI Phantom quadcopter. The Phantom 3 showed up in 2015. It cost about a thousand dollars, weighs 3.9 kg (8.6 pounds), can stay in the air about 20 minutes per flight and can go up to 2,000 meters from the operator. The operator can see (at 720p resolution) what is under the Phantom using a small display and capture a higher resolution video (“2.7k” or 1080p) on a 16 GB micro memory card on the UAV. The Phantom 3 was widely available. It is easy to operate and has flight control software that makes it easy to operate and keeps the video image stable. You can equip these with a night vision camera. Max altitude is over 500 meters (1,600 feet) but most Phantoms operate lower down because getting to higher altitude takes time. DJI kept upgrading its Phantom line of quadcopters from the moment the first one hit the market in 2013. The Phantom 1 was basically a quadcopter you could add your own GoPro wireless vidcam to. But every few months DJI added new features and major upgrades were introduced as a new mode. Phantom 2 appeared at the end of 2013, Phantom 3 in early 2015 and Phantom 4 a year later. Phantom 3 was the most popular model and Phantom 4 was basically a Phantom 3 with lots more capabilities (4K video, video transmission range of five kilometers) and a higher price (about $1,800 each). New models of the Phantom continued to appear, sometimes just with a few new features and a lower price. New features include collision avoidance sensors and software. The Phantom line was replaced by the Mavic and Matrice which covered included low (Mavic) and high end (Matrice) models. Year by year the capabilities of the DJI quadcopters increased and the troops were not happy that they could not use them but the enemy could and did.
American troops aren’t the only ones to notice the usefulness of quadcopters. Israeli firms have several quadcopters designed and built locally for military and police use. In 2016 the Israeli military bought some locally made Roetm L UAVs for their infantry to use in urban combat. What is unique about the Roetm L is a lightweight (4.5 kg/10 pound) quad-copter based on commercial designs but modified so that it not only carries the usual day/night cameras but can also replace the cameras with two 450g (one pound) grenades that can be armed and released by operator command. With 30 minutes of endurance and easily learned operation Rotem L can be carried (in a case) by one man, set up and ready to go in a minute or so and recovered for reuse. The controller has a range of up to 10 kilometers but in a dense urban environment, the max range is more like 1,500 meters. The major advantage of Rotem L is that it is quiet and can be flown through open doors or windows. Carrying one or no grenades allows Rotem L to stay airborne for up to 45 minutes. The grenades can be triggered while still aboard Rotem L to provide a self-destruct mechanism. If Rotem L lands with live grenades aboard the operator can double-check the armed status of the grenades before recharging it for another mission. Rotem L can be used unarmed by police or carry tear gas or flash-bang grenades. Rotem L is expensive, costly over $10,000 each. Military users prefer to use it equipped with vidcams and use the “cruise missile” option only when forced to. Israel firms offer less expensive unarmed quadcopters for military and police use.
The U.S. Army eventually (in 2019) selected a French firm (Parrot) to develop a militarized quadcopter that would do what the DJI products did but without the danger of being hacked by China. That is difficult to do because DJI has a huge head start, especially when it comes to flight control software and reliability. American developers have also turned quadcopters into specialized systems for military use. A former Navy SEAL and his brother formed a company (Shield AI) in 2015 to develop a quadcopter that would use off-the-shelf sensors and electronics to fly into buildings and automatically (under control of the custom flight control software) measure, map and take a video of the interior. Troops have been asking for something like this for years but, as is often the case since 2001, former military personnel, often Special Forces or SEALs, start small firms to develop and manufacture these items and then sell them to the military and civilians.
What the troops want is something low-cost and capable because in the combat zone equipment is quickly worn out. This is especially true with quadcopters. As a result, the troops have become accustomed to buying commercial products whenever they can get away with it.
One thing that encouraged and tolerated this “buy commercial” attitude was another recent development; RFI (the Rapid Fielding Initiative). RFI was created in 2002 by the U.S. Army as a mechanism for quickly getting what the troops needed. The Internet helped make this possible, for the troops grew up with cell phones and the Internet and know how to quickly connect with each other and sort out what they all had experienced and determined what was needed to operate more effectively. Out of this came the Rapid Equipping Force program (REF) which monitored troop needs and quickly found and shipped out needed weapons and equipment. The Rapid Fielding Initiative gave unit commanders (division and below) cash and authority to buy non-standard items the troops needed fast. With most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over, there has been budget pressure to eliminate both of these programs. The troops and their commanders agreed that would be a big mistake and both programs continue.
In Iraq and Afghanistan the military, especially the army, was quick to take advice from the troops actually doing the fighting. That was recognized even before Iraq and led to the RFI, which recognized that the American army did not always have the best weapons and equipment available and that the troops and low-level commanders had a better idea of what was needed than the senior generals and politicians. RFI was intended to do something about that and do it quickly. Since 2002 the army approved the purchase of over 500 items immediately, which is what RFI was all about. In 2011 the army began deciding which of these RFI items to make standard equipment (about a quarter of them) and which to discard (the rest, although many were obsolete and improved replacements were being sought). The Marines went through the same process and found that most of their RFI items were worth keeping. This is due to the Marines having a tradition of doing more with less (since they have much less money to spend per person than the army).
Not everyone was a fan of RFI. Traditional (government and contractor) weapons and equipment developers did not like RFI. Procurement bureaucrats like to take their time, even when there's a war going on. This is mainly to cover everyone's ass and try to placate all the big shots and constituencies demanding certain features. In wartime, this process is sped up somewhat but it is always slower than it has to be. RFI and RFE, to the surprise of many, became institutionalized despite continued opposition from the traditional procurement bureaucracy and the defense contractors they work with. The DJI paranoia was not shared by the troops but the traditional defense contractors pushed it and offered themselves as an alternative supplier that cost 5 to 10 times more and usually took years to deliver.
Another annoying (to the defense procurement and contractor folks) is the fact that the troops are willing to accept a partial solution. Engineers often point out that they can deliver much more quickly if they are allowed to use the old "70 percent solution" rule. This bit of engineering wisdom is based on the fact that some capabilities of a weapon or other item are not essential but take an inordinate amount of time, effort and money to create. Thus a "good enough" item can be produced very quickly if you are willing to sacrifice 30 percent of the capabilities you thought you needed, but probably don't. Despite official opposition, the 70 percent solution became all the rage after 2003 because the troops have found that this is frequently good enough and a real lifesaver in combat. After RFI was adopted this often meant adopting civilian gear (radios, hunting accessories, electronics, clothing, tents, quadcopters) that was not “militarized” as in made much more expensive and not arriving for a long time.
The age of change began with the troops who, thanks to the Internet and a flood of new civilian technology, got into the habit of just buying new stuff with their own money and using it in combat. If the army had developed a lot of this gear it would have had more features, probably been more rugged, and taken a lot longer to arrive, if it ever did at all. But for the troops, the off-the-shelf gear filled important needs, even if it was a 70 percent solution , because it was also a life-saver that was needed immediately.
Troops have been finding and buying non-standard gear for decades but this had been growing more frequent since the 1990s. The army became tolerant of it, largely because this unofficial civilian gear (sleeping bags, boots, rifle cleaning kits, etc.) often was better and even officers used the stuff. As the number of these items increased tremendously after 2003, and more officers came back from commanding combat units with personal experience with this sort of thing, a growing number of senior commanders began demanding that the army procurement bureaucracy get rid of the traditional 10-15 years it takes to find, develop, and approve new technology for the troops.
The troops have long understood this but now four-star generals agreed and often did so from personal experience. The generals did create the REF in 2001, which was successful as long as it paid constant attention to what the troops were thinking and doing. Unfortunately with some items, like electronics (as used in smartphones and quadcopters) paranoia (justified or not) also becomes a factor, especially when there is not a major war going on. At that point the army and marines become more dependent on SOCOM (Special Operations Command) experience because these elite units always had the equivalent of RFI an RFE and that experience was one of the many factors that got RFI/RFE for everyone going after 2001.