Drone Development: Are We Keeping Up In This Game?

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During my forced sojourn as a hurricane refugee last month, by happenstance, I had one of the most remarkable flight experiences of a 50-year-plus flying career. Maybe not the most amazing, but certainly in the top five. And my feet never left the ground.

Yeah, it was a drone. A new one from DJI called the Avata, which just hit the market during the past couple of weeks. According to the marketing babble, the Avata is intended as an entry level FPV drone which is amusing considering that it costs nearly $1900 fully kitted out. It’s not something I would buy but its capabilities are remarkable. FPV, in case you’re not familiar, means first person view and it essentially means that in flight, you see what the drone camera sees through VR-type goggles or a display. My ancient Phantom has a flat display and I have flown it FPV, but it’s a crude experience compared to the Avata, mainly because the goggles make the experience almost as dramatically immersive as flying in an aircraft.

Rather than a control box with two joysticks, the Avata has an integrated motion controller that’s sort of like the grip on an aircraft control stick, but with the stick sawed off. The throttle is a trigger button. It’s utterly intuitive. With zero training, I was able to understand immediately that merely tilting the controller left or right turned the machine and pitching it back and forth controlled pitch.

Within minutes, I was flying the thing around trees, under branches and skimming a foot above the grass runway at the private airport we were flying from. The goggles are high-def with good color an unlike a flat display, depth perception is almost like looking through the windshield of an airplane. A little H on the screen orients the operator to home—where he or she is standing. It’s child’s play to fly it right back into your hand if that’s your game. It’s also stealthy, thanks to some carefully engineered blades and guards. Even 10 feet away, it doesn’t have that annoying out-of-sync buzz my Phantom does.  

The consumer drone market has matured to the point that you can buy them for under $100, including some FPV models for not much more. But it’s the flight dynamics that I found most impressive. Control response is smooth as buttah and I couldn’t detect much latency. I came down to earth when I stripped the goggles off, but not necessarily literally. It occurred to me that DJI is a Chinese company and owns 70 percent of the consumer and commercial drone market. Chinese companies as a whole have 80 percent market share.

And China being China, that expertise has percolated upward into the defense industry. China is now the go-to source for inexpensive, capable armed drones. It has delivered at least 200 to 16 countries and is rapidly proliferating capabilities the U.S. perfected and once owned. And not just China. Iran, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan and India are also finding success with export drone technology, something Russia apparently lags in, given that they have purchased and are deploying Iranian drones. Proxy weapon wars are nothing new, but drones have the potential of being powerful field levelers. They allow even small militaries to project armed ISR—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. That is, in fact, what Ukraine is doing against Russia and effectively, if general press reporting on the conflict is accurate and reliable.

But I wonder and worry if U.S. and NATO forces are keeping up in counter-drone warfare. Given the way of the world, it seems inevitable that the U.S. will be dragged into a shooting conflict in the Middle East or Asia, where China continues to saber rattle over Taiwan. Iranian drones have proven capable enough, but could Chinese variants pose more indefensible threats? And are enough resources being dedicated to counter it? I think we are all loathe to see U.S. forces confronted by drone threats they can’t counter or to have their own ISR blinded by capabilities we don’t know about.

In the Middle East, at least, the U.S. has reached an agreement to establish a counter-drone test range in Saudi Arabia, the idea being that no single country can mount defense in detail against ever more capable UAVs and what’s needed is a stitched together defensive network spanning the entire region. Evidently, these plans will survive the recent dust-up with Saudi Arabia over OPEC oil production.

The defense press is reporting on other counter-drone technologies, including the Israeli made hand-held Smart Shooter for forward units, a wider area RF-based system called the Installation-Counter small Unmanned Aircraft System (ICsUAS) and a more basic kinetic approach called Vampire. I think it’s reasonable to assume others are in the works that we don’t know about. It’s also reasonable to assume that counter drone warfare offers no magic bullets.

Ukraine proves this. In addition to representing the most intense UAV battlefield yet, the conflict has been an intelligence bonanza for Western agencies wondering about the capabilities of Russian and Iranian drones. I haven’t seen any reporting on Chinese UAVs, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Perversely, Western companies drive some of this UAV progress.

One of the more widely used UAVs is the Iranian Sahed 136, which the daily press calls a Kamikaze drone but which military professionals call a loitering munition. That may be a bit of a misnomer because from public source descriptions, the Sahed 136 doesn’t loiter, but is launched en masse from a rack containing five of the aircraft. It would appear that the target coordinates are loaded into the aircraft and it performs like a cruise missile. Think of it as a V-1 with smart navigation. With a wingspan of 8 feet on a length of 11 feet and powered by what appears to be a copy of a two-cylinder Limbach 550, the Sahed might as well be straight out of general aviation. Navigation is listed as GNSS, which could be anyone of five satellite nav systems. My guess is GPS and the European Galileo are at the top. Maybe China’s BeiDou system, but it’s relatively new.

How effective it is is open to debate. Ukraine claims to have shot down more than 300 of the drones, but this could be disinformation. Some have clearly hit their targets and with a warhead up to 110 pounds, that’s about the equivalent of 155 mm artillery shell. It’s a wallop. With five launched at once, the aircraft swarm is supposed to overwhelm the defenses. Among the things Western intelligence agencies have learned about the Sahed 136 is that its guidance system uses American-sourced chips and other components are from Europe. Something to think about when the U.S. made no objections to the Chinese buying major general aviation manufacturers whose technology can easily undergird the low-tech requirements of small UAVs.

Where all this goes from here is anyone’s guess. But it’s clear we’re seeing history being made in a paradigm shift of how modern wars are fought. Pity we can’t put all the effort and creativity into the peaceful pursuit of just fooling around with harmless airplanes.

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27 COMMENTS

  1. “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
    ― Albert Einstein

    I’m in Albert’s camp on this one. If you push any country hard enough the results are unspeakable.

  2. From what I heard during a public open day, a good five years ago, it is now quite common for European armies down to platoon level,to be equipped with mobile phone jammers, and jammers for all three major GPS systems.
    And professional drone operators in Europe (doing glamour jobs like cleaning roofs) complain that in the past year they have had to cope with sudden Russian GPS system outages — thought to be caused by someone hitting the off switch after a warning of missile / drone attacks on the way.
    Once the military calls for hardened links to fly its drones, the price will shoot up, so expect commercial systems to be favoured for a long time.
    The other bit of electronic wizardry in use in the past 10 years, which has largely gone under the radar are the electronic “suitcases” on tripods, which give precise locations of the launch tubes of any mortars or shells which fall near them — and other ones, which pinpoint where sniper and other bullets come from.
    They are used in Ukraine by both sides, which is why the shoot and scoot artillery systems are so important, with the scoot part being very carefully worked out before the shoot.

  3. Great article Paul. I try to follow this space, but the amount of new material you present is always edifying. Perhaps you might find time to shoot a video on investigative journalism sometime ? I think most readers would enjoy that very much.

  4. UAV warfare is now at about an equivalent level to aerial combat in about 1915–mainly reconnaissance, some light bombardment and the very beginnings of air-to-air capability to deny those missions to an adversary.

    • Probably a bit more than 1915. The stuff you see in Ukraine about dropping small bombs out of off the shelf drones is not comparable to hell-fire missiles launched from a Predator drones to destroy heavily armed targets. The US has amazing UAV capabilities that can be piloted from anywhere in the world (as long as you have a line of sight crew to launch and recover) and these “drones” can launch precision laser and satellite directed munitions with little to no collateral damage.

  5. The problem with countering these munitions-carrying UAVs that are self-navigating to a programmed target destination at low altitude is that they are just so hard to detect and track. They don’t (generally) emit any RF, they are too low for radar to be effective, they typically don’t follow a straight-line course, and even if you do happen to have some point defense stationed at their target that spots them approaching, the window of opportunity to bring them down is likely measured in seconds rather than minutes. You just have to do your best to saturate all approaches to target areas with whatever defensive capability you can muster.

  6. If you’re defending a specific target (like maybe an air base) I wonder if a laser system would be effective against low speed targets like these. Cook out the electronics before the drone reaches its target.

    If the drones are GPS-guided, well the GPS signal is pretty easy to jam. That wouldn’t stop them from coming down somewhere, but at least they would come down somewhere else.

  7. Once again, let’s stop providing the CCP with investment capital. Aircraft companies owned by the CCP need to lose their protections from third party parts sources. Their licenses need to be opened up under some system which will stop them from earning money from holding the companies while incentivizing repatriation.

    Also, no avionics companies should be forced or even allowed to interact with these manufacturers. A work around needs to be created to allow STC’s and upgrades without CCP puppets being involved.

    Cirrus and Diamond and whoever else’s aircraft owners should be able to get parts without the inclusion or interference of the puppet companies. New sales should cease. Letting them sell more planes is just making it harder to get rid of them. Cut them out of aviation completely.

    • Cutting the Chinese out of aviation may be a late measure as the uncontrolled transfer of technology and its infrastructure is now well established in China. Presently, the PRC is a growing military threat to the U.S. but more so against Russia. Keeping a watch on Outer Mongolia. Old beef!

  8. Modern GNSS receivers are all-in-view, meaning they will use whatever GNSS signals are present to include GPS, Galileo, Beidou, and GLONASS. My cell phone has an all-in-view chip in it, and it’s a $99 piece of you know what. It is expensive to use a broadband jammer, so those are typically reserved for very important sites. In other places, you can usually find enough signals. Combine that with a CRPA antenna and you have the best non-military grade GNSS system money can buy. Combine GNSS-INS with vision navigation and you have a rock-solid nav solution.

  9. Paul: KUDOS for another timely and highly relevant article. I recall a comment by Stephen Hawking that the triade of AI, Bioengineering, and Drones will soon pose an existential threat to humanity. Cheap weapon systems designed, built, and operated by AI, mass produced, miniturized, swarmed or individual, stealthy, armed with bio/chemica/explosive/radiological/nuclear are fearsome to contemplate. I agree with an earlier comment that the systems are still primitive and analagous to very early WW1 innovations. The future is murky and daunting to contemplate.

  10. Considering the beating that Russian armor has taken in Ukraine, I think all nations should take a hard look at the future of ground-based tanks and personnel carriers. Off the shelf drones have proven quite effective in directing artillery against such targets and have even progressed to dropping small warheads on troops or vehicles. With the technologies Paul discussed, the days of heavy armor in ground warfare is likely nearing its end. A group of UAVs carrying hellfire missiles could render a column of tanks into flaming derelicts in short order. Also, I have long had indigestion with allowing the Chinese to become the lead supplier of components, including computer chips, for the rest of the world. We should never allow a potential adversary to be in the position of supplying components for our military’s use. Even if they don’t directly use them against us, they can easily sell the technology to rouge nations such as Iran who will gladly do so.

  11. Thanks Paul. I’m surprised we haven’t seen anti-drone kit on soldiers before now. A squad surely needs at least one device to be always on, detecting drones and dealing with them. A lightweight laser/DEW to blind them at the very least.

  12. I have two in a box that I paid $120 for. Have had them since May (new still in the box) Hoping they are not obsolete by Thanksgiving when the family gets together. “Oh Uncle Jeff those things are old”….Gathering includes at least one requisite 12 year old that knows how to operate these things (at least computers). Looking forward to a few laughs.

    God bless.

  13. Despite all the claimed benefits of electric small aircraft by the advocates of those aircraft, I don’t see any weaponized electric drones mentioned.

    If it makes economic or operational sense to use electric aircraft for civilian use, why not military? The benefit would be that you wouldn’t hear the inbound coming–so couldn’t take action against the launch point. The negatives: the very same as civilian projected uses–no range–except on reconnaissance flights–(you wouldn’t have to worry about a return flight on weaponized flights!) and limited payload–you couldn’t carry much of a warhead PLUS those heavy batteries.

  14. Excellent insightful commentary. Watching aviation technology drain to China for the last 10 years has been painful, at some point the West has to wake up on this and related topics. Hopefully the damage isnt already too great.
    Tim

  15. Here’s China’s advantage: “A Georgetown University study projected that China will produce 77,000 graduates in STEM fields by 2025, versus 40,000 in the United States, where foreign students will make up a large share. Jan 22, 2022”

  16. We had drones long before the public knew what a drone was… we had drones during the Korean War… B17s were turned into drones as targets. Drones we have could fly completely on their own and decide what targets kill all on its own. They know the difference between human and animals… just like your home security system. We have swarm drones that also can pick a target and swarm it. These have been around for a while now and publicly known.
    We aren’t falling behind in drone technology, America just doesn’t give this tech to the public, until foreign powers have stolen the tech, and given it to their population.

    • You are correct Richard. Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles or Drone technology dates back to the 1940s, use of Recon and Antipersonnel drones in combat operations came in the 2000s. UCAVs missions have become an important part of modern warfare, as popularized by the latest Russian “Special Operation” of Ukraine. But is the U.S. ready for this type of Drone Warfare?

  17. Americans need to understand the ChiComs are not our friends, and not merely competitors, but enemies who goal is to supplant the USA as the world’s dominant superpower. And they are smart, they saw how the Soviets failed in trying to confront us directly, so they are using a more subtle set of strategies – draining our manufacturing capability while simultaneously making billions of $ selling us stuff we should be making for ourselves; using military-grade hacking to steal our military and industrial technologies; sending their tech students to top US schools so they can return home and use that tech against us; buying “friends” and allies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East; and steadily building up their military (including unconventional weapons such as drones) for the day when they are strong and powerful enough for direct confrontation.

    • 1. In warfare the conventional becomes conventional.
      2. ChiCom “Nationalism” is forcefully controlled while Western World Nationalism is not, and conceivably fragmenting.
      3. The Russia-Ukraine war is a Western World “Attention-Getter”.
      4. NATO has been given new strength.

      • Corrected. In warfare the unconventional becomes conventional.
        2. ChiCom “Nationalism” is forcefully controlled while Western World Nationalism is not, and conceivably fragmenting.
        3. The Russia-Ukraine war is a Western World “Attention-Getter”.
        4. NATO has been given new strength.