ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — A small Norwegian company, now owned by U.S.-based FLIR, has added night vision capability to its tiny drone and has seen an uptick in sales with militaries worldwide.
The addition of a micro thermal camera from FLIR has enabled the tiny unmanned helicopter to see at night without increasing the price tag, Ole Aguirre, the company vice president of business development, told Defense News at Abu Dhabi's International Defense Exhibition.
The Lepton FLIR sensor has been such a successful addition to the Black Hornet. Prox Dynamics has sat largely alone in a "nano" unmanned aircraft systems market for years but hasn't stopped improving and upgrading its product.
Prox Dynamics, which FLIR acquired late last year in a $134 million deal, became FLIR's UAS business that operates within the surveillance segment.
Prox Dynamics got its start in Oslo in 2007 and found early success in the defense sector with the British military in 2012. "The Brits took a lot of hits in the Kandahar region in 2011, which included casualties, so they needed something specifically to decrease the casualty rates," Aguirre said.
The Black Hornet was a first-to-market product that the British adapted for reconnaissance and surveillance missions in Afghanistan for force protection, according to Aguirre.
A more mature version of the Black Hornet, with a more powerful engine and better sensors, is now being used and rapidly purchased around the world.
Several years ago, the utility and practicality of nano UASs were being questioned as it emerged on the scene. The criticism was that the drones never lasted very long in the air, couldn't see well and could blow away in wind.
But "these sensors have been widely accepted now," Aguirre said. Prox Dynamics — and now FLIR — have sold the Black Hornet to 23 different countries worldwide.
The U.S. Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and special operations forces all use the Black Hornet for specific mission needs, according to Aguirre.
The Australian military also uses the Black Hornet, and Turkey has been a "wide adapter of the technology," he said.
The nano UAS is particularly popular in the Middle East. Several countries in the region publicly own the Black Hornet including Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, while several other undisclosed countries also employ the drone, and "they are frequently used in the joint operations and joint training operations all around the world," Aguirre said.
The Black Hornet weighs less than 1 ounce and is capable — in its current form — of flying about 100 meters high for 25 minutes with line-of-sight distances of up to 1 mile. The UAS is in a size class so small it requires no air-space deconfliction authorization to fly, said T.J. Roalstad, a supervisor at Prox Dynamics, making it very easy to use immediately in an operation.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.