Procurement: Quadcopter Madness


July 7, 2018: 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 cost less than two thousand dollars each and 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. This was because of fears that China could have a secret feature in the quadcopter control software that would enable them to disable the quadcopters when they wished to. 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 (and the best value as well as the most reliable). 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. 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). Now models of the Phantom continue to appear, sometimes just with a few new features and a lower price. New features include collision avoidance sensors and software.

Meanwhile, the Marines had other technical innovations with their new squad organization. Quadcopters were just one of many changes for marine combat units. The new squad will have twelve men organized into three fire teams with three men each led by a squad leader (sergeant). There will also be an assistant squad leader (corporal) and a squad systems operator. Everyone will be armed with the new M27 IAR (Infantry Automatic Rifle). Each squad will have a quadcopter UAV (based on commercial models many Marines are quite familiar with off duty.) The systems operator will usually handle the UAV, although all Marines in the squad who have quad-copter experience will be identified so there will also be additional operators available. The systems operator also handles the new digital radios that can also communicate with marine air support (helicopters or fighter-bombers). The systems operator is trained to deal with all the electronics in the squad, as well as apps used on smartphones or laptops.

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 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. But Israel firms offer less expensive unarmed quadcopters for military and police use.

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 measuring electronics to fly into buildings and automatically (under control of the custom flight control software) measure, map and take 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.

One thing that encouraged this “buy commercial” attitude in the American military was another post-2001 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 makes 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 and the Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) which 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 is budget pressure to eliminate both of these programs. The troops and their commanders agreed that would be a big mistake.

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.

And then there 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. Since RFI this often meant adopting civilian gear (radios, hunting accessories, electronics, clothing, tents, quadcopters) that was not “militarized” (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.

Troops have been finding and buying non-standard gear for decades but it 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 war going on.




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