The U.S. military has truly gone bonkers for unmanned aerial systems, with a vast inventory of surveillance drones alongside a few that are big enough to carry missiles for precision strikes.
But imagine if a UAS could observe a target for units on the ground, providing intel on a key terrorist leader or bomb making factory and be the bomb that takes them out.
That's the kind of capability special operations units like the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command are looking for, and a few companies displaying their wares at the 2016 Modern Day Marine Expo and this year's Association of the U.S. Army conference are offering the technology to fit that mission.
Developed by Israeli defense firm UVision, the Hero-30 is a beyond line of sight unmanned aerial vehicle that packs into an 11 pound launch canister that can be carried onto battle on a trooper's back. The drone is about 4 feet long and is launched by a pneumatic shot of air. Once airborne, a soldier flies the vehicle using a handheld control unit which allows him to orbit his target for up to 30 minutes.
Once the bad guy is in sight, the operator just flies the drone straight into its target for the kill. The Hero-30 warhead can be configured for point detonation or air burst while still in flight.
"It is lightweight for a special ops team or an infantry squad to be able to provide them with a precision munition they can fly themselves," said Clinton Anderson with Mistral Inc., which represents UVision in the U.S. "You can designate how you want it to attack and how you want the fuse to operate and you launch it in attack mode and it comes in right on the target and blows up."
UVision also has a new version dubbed the Hero-40 that's a bit longer with greater range and explosive payload and is intended for vehicle-borne operations and missions.
One of the oldest companies in the small UAV business Aerovironment has a more scaled-down answer to the kamikaze drone requirement with its Switchblade miniature lethal aerial system.
Coming in at just under 5 pounds with its diminutive launcher, the Switchblade has a 10 km range and can loiter over a target for about 10 minutes. It's so small the Switchblade can fit inside a typical tactical pack and delivers a lethal blast on target using a small, handheld ground control system.
"This miniature, remotely-piloted or autonomous platform can either glide or propel itself via quiet electric propulsion, providing real-time GPS coordinates and video for information gathering, targeting, or feature/object recognition," the company says. "The vehicle's small size and quiet motor make it difficult to detect, recognize and track even at very close range."
Company officials say the U.S. Army is buying the Switchblade for testing with its infantry troops and special operations soldiers.