HELSINKI — The heightening Nordic focus on soldier protection has spurred the region’s leading UAV manufacturers to prioritize development of sophisticated micro-technologies.
Nordic nano-UAV producers Prox Dynamics and CybAero are taking a somewhat different route to that of larger global competitors, which are developing more offensive UAVs. The two companies are designing and producing smaller, unarmed nano-UAVs that are virtually invisible and silent and difficult to neutralize.
Prox Dynamics’ nano-sized Black Hornet, which has been developed in cooperation with the state-funded Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (NDRE) has already been sold to the British and Norwegian armies.
The nano-UAV, in use with British front-line Brigade Reconnaissance Force units in Afghanistan, is the more micro-sized, next-generation version of the company’s PD-100 Personal Reconnaissance System originally developed for offshore and onshore search-and-rescue missions.
The camouflage gray Black Hornet weighs just 16 grams, is 10 centimeters long and has a 4-inch rotor span. Designed for infantry units, the aircraft is equipped with a nano-camera capable of sending back high-definition motion video or still images to its operator via a tablet-size LCD screen. The GPS-coordinated nano aircraft has a 1,000-meter range and 20-minute flight time.
Prox Dynamics’ recently delivered 160 micro-battery operated Black Hornet kits to the British Army in a deal worth US $30.5 million. The global market potential from military and law enforcement markets is huge, said CEO Petter Muren.
“The civilian market is potentially larger than the military, but we are not quite there yet, and it will probably be a few more years before demand from the police, fire and the civil defense end of the market grows to the level of the military demand we are seeing now. What we have is a very powerful nano-technology UAV tool,” Muren said.
The Black Hornet is sold in kit form, with each 2-kilogram kit comprising two aircraft, UAS payload, a tablet sized monitor and base station.
The nano-UAV carries three cameras: one forward-looking, one ground focused, and a third angled at 45 degrees forward and down. Data and imagery captured in-flight can be uploaded to a central database.
The system’s ability to acquire 10-figure grid references adds a value well above that of a simple surveillance device, said Eric Bayer, a Berlin-based technology analyst.
“The initial primary function of nano-sized systems like the Black Hornet is to save lives by enabling infantry commanders to know about the location of potential enemy forces that may be lying in wait on roofs, behind walls or concealed in rough terrain. The aircraft grid reference capability means that a UAV like the Black Hornet can also be used to both identify enemy locations and direct air or artillery strikes,” Bayer said.
Developing intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance and early situational surveillance technologies potentially will provide troops greater protection than the deployment of conventional drones, helicopters or combat aircraft, Bayer said.
“Commanders on the ground can quickly order the release of a Black Hornet if a nearby threat is perceived to the safety of the unit. Because nano-helos are not classified as aircraft, there is no need to secure permission up the higher chain of command.
This saves vital time and means infantry units can have eyes on potential close-in threats in seconds,” Bayer said.
The Black Hornet replaces the need to send soldiers forward to check-out potential hidden threats, said NDRE’s director, John Mikal Størdal.
Norway’s military partially funded and co-developed the Black Hornet with the intention of widely deploying the system to support its Infantry and Soldier Protection Systems high-tech modernization programs, Størdal said.
“We have invested in the Black Hornet, and this kind of infantry support nano-technology is certain to become an important part in the modernizing of our defense for years to come,” Størdal said
“UAVs like the Black Hornet fulfill the infantry unit’s need for a flying binoculars type of silent stealth spy drone,” Bayer said. “Its object identification software gives the [nano-UAV] the capacity to hover undetected virtually in front of the enemy. ... From an infantry capability standpoint, this is game-changing technology,” he said.
CybAero has also been investing heavily to produce more sophisticated macro-sized UAVs with more nano-technology content. The Swedish company formed a strategic helo-UAV partnership with US-based AeroVironment in November 2012.
“We have found the ideal partner. AeroVironment has delivered over 22,000 hand-operated fixed wing UAVs. Eighty-five percent of all UAVs used by US armed forces are supplied by AeroVironment. Our cooperation agreement covers the US, NATO and a number of other markets,” said CybAero CEO Leif Erlandsson.
Under the agreement, AeroVironment will use CybAero’s current product APID 60 in the UAV systems it sells to the US military.
The Monrovia, Calif.,-based AeroVironment is also developing a micro-sized battery-powered drone called the Nano Hummingbird which is similar in size (6.5 inches long), weight and multi-functional capability to the Black Hornet.
The Nano Hummingbird is being developed in collaboration with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. ■