Killer drones are getting lighter, smaller and cheaper in order to keep their place on the battlefield as defense budgets are cut and as the U.S. military pulls out of Afghanistan. The latest twist: "kamikaze" drones that blow up along with their intended target.
Two devices were on display at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) trade show in Washington, DC, this week: Textron System's Battlehawk and Aerovironment's Switchblade. Both are hand-launched devices that can be carried in a small backpack.
The Battlehawk is made of carbon-fiber wings that curl up into a 22-inch tube launcher. The 5.5-pound device is then flown via an Android-based software app on a smartphone or tablet device to its intended target. The soldier can turn on a video camera, arm the grenade in the nose of the drone and watch as the truck, tank or unfortunate bad guy is terminated.
"It's a squad-level loitering munition," said Cathy Loughman, Textron senior program manager. "The soldier is given a target, punches it into the tablet, within a minute and a half, they peel the top off and press a couple buttons on the tablet and off it goes."
The Battlehawk runs on a small battery-powered propeller. It also has a geo-location device that allows it to follow a target for 30 minutes before the soldier can chose between Abort or Attack modes.
"If there is a sniper three kilometers away," Loughman said. "This can hit it without calling in air support."
Once the Afghan war winds down, Textron hopes to convert the Battlehawk into domestic law enforcement device that could carry a bigger battery to fly longer, or even something like smoke grenades for crowd dispersal. The device is going into more testing this fall before a tryout with troops.
Aerovironment has developed a similar grenade-carrying device already being used by the Army called the Switchblade, which also weighs 5.5 pounds, but only has a 10-minute flight time.
Like many other drone firms at this week's show, Aerovironment trying to determine when drones will allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration be flying over U.S. airspace. The agency has been given a 2015 deadline by President Obama and Congress to figure out how integrate them with human-piloted aircraft.
Many firms are also looking overseas for new markets. This week Aerovironment signed an agreement to build U.S. drones in India for the Indian defense forces. Representatives for other firms at the show say they are preparing to sell drones to U.S. rivals China and Russia.
"We are preparing for that time (2015) and looking for new opportunities," said Aerovironment's Dave Heidel.