The French government recently announced the purchase of up to 210 mini reconnaissance UAVs from Thales, starting in 2018. With a wingspan of 12.5 feet, the Spy'Ranger weighs in at about 32 pounds, making it smaller and more nimble than conventional drones.
"This is about having the ability to gather the right information at the right time," said Pascal Sécretin, who heads up the mini UAV product line at Thales. "It's a way to get specific areas of interest before the mission, with images processed through a C4I system."
The French military buy is indicative of a growing trend toward miniature and even micro UAVs, a trend that is playing out across the U.S. military. The U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps all have pursued small, highly flexible platforms.
In February, for example, four Marines with Task Force Southwest demonstrated a new aerial system known as InstantEye at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. A miniature, portable quadcopter drone, InstantEye can capture imagery of battle spaces, execute reconnaissance and conduct airstrikes on enemy targets.
But unlike conventional UAVs, the system doesn't need a runway, and it can launch and land at 90-degree angles. "We can take off in any direction we want, and we can hover if we need to, which is a significant difference when it comes to maneuverability. That technology is great," said Shaun Sorensen, a small UAS instructor with Training and Logistics Support Activity, in a Marine Corps news release.
The tiny craft can fit in tight spaces and maneuver around corners, giving operators access to a wider range of tactical intelligence.
The Army shares an interest in small-scale drones. At a Program Executive Office Soldier media round table at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, last spring, Army officials described the potential uses of a drone that might be as small as a sparrow or even a bumblebee.
The UAS would fly 50 to 70 feet in the air for 10 to 15 minutes, said Col. Phil Cheatham, deputy branch chief of the Electronics and Special Development Branch at the Maneuver Center of Excellence on Fort Benning, Georgia.
That would be a "game changer" for squad situational awareness, he said. Such craft would likely dominate the scene out to the limits of their small-arms fire capabilities. Experiments at Army battle labs have already tested such functionality at the platoon level.
Navy officials have been looking at such capabilities since at least 2015, when they announced work on the Close-in Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, or CICADA. These small unmanned systems are engineered to travel in groups, delivering detection capacity to hard-to-reach areas.
Mini drones are part of the military's long-range vision. A "2046 Strategic Plan" from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico references Perdix drones as part of a "game-changing strategy" going forward. A military demonstration in fall 2016 showed 103 of the miniature vehicles launching from three F/A-18 Super Hornets and flying in a coordinated swarm.
Why so much action around mini drones? Sécretin suggests military leaders may be looking for a way to get a better handle on increasingly complex air operations.
"Modern armies have problems with air-control management. To use a big unmanned system, the commander needs to plan an air request, sometimes up to 48 hours before the mission. This is not flexible enough to answer to the tactical units' needs," he said.
A mini drone, or even a swarm of drones, can be launched in a matter of minutes without the need for air-control planning.
In addition, mini drones expand capacity by increasing the number of controllers qualified to run a mission.
"An operator can pilot one of these after a very short training phase," he said. "It takes a week of training to be able to fly this system, with three to four more weeks learning to operate the sensors. You need to be fluent enough in the flight constraints to be able to focus on the main mission, which is gathering intelligence."
The Spy'Ranger will fly with an array of sensors and the ability to manage complex intelligence, for instance by tagging visual images with metadata.
"The operator will see the video in real time, he can take a picture very easily, and with the metadata he will have the coordinates of literally each pixel in the video, so you have the precise coordinates of every point in an area of interest," he said.