What Is The Next Step In The Drone Arms Race?

Field-tested in spy and kill missions in the vast deserts of the Middle East, drones of all shapes and sizes are soon to come back to mainland US and enter mainstream consciousness. Don’t worry, the sky isn’t about to fall – it’s about to be swarming with drones.

Lock and launch

Today, every engineering enthusiast who has a pistol and a drone can jury rig something like this. Though the concept of a flying toy that can murder people definitely sounds cool, there are many problems with drones wielding guns, the biggest of which is recoil.

CGI drone

Obviously not done with CGI

In this video by FPSRussia, there is supposedly a quadcopter with a machine gun attached that blows up mannequins and then flies into the back seat of a car before self-destructing, destroying it in the process. The only issue is that anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Mythbusters can see that explosives were used, along with a dash of terrible CGI. Besides, as we’ve learned from the pistol video, any type of burst fire from such mounted machine gun would inevitably send the quadcopter spinning uncontrollably and spraying bullets everywhere.

Fiery death from the skies

predator drone article

Eerily graceful Predator drone

This incompatibility with conventional firearms makes drones largely unsuitable for combat usage in urban environments where anything can happen. However, they are still a useful asset to any army and excel at two support roles: reconnaissance and precision strikes.

raven drone

Simply add solar panels for extra spying power!

Small drones, such as the RQ-11 Raven, are fairly cheap to produce, can be carried in a backpack, launched by hand and possess an electric motor that allows them silent flight. Their larger brethren, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, can carry Hellfire and Sidewinder missiles, laser-guided bombs and are controlled via satellites.

How good are they?

Cameras, bombs and missiles on a drone — that’s like attaching a sword and a spear to a tank and charging enemies with it. Can’t the Pentagon think of anything more awesome? Actually, no. Despite the obvious advantage of not requiring a pilot present, drones are still not that good in close combat and are relatively easy to shoot down, as seen in this video. The only obvious solution is to make them smaller, faster and capable of attacking in large numbers at once, which is what the Office of Naval Research is currently doing with its LOCUST program.

drone locust swarm

Also obviously not done with CGI

Launched in large numbers, these agile drones will autonomously organize attack formations and shoot at the target from all directions, overwhelming it within seconds. At least that’s how they could be used in theory.

Wi-Fi hacking mosquito

In reality, the most suitable weapons for any drone mission would still be unconventional, such as jamming devices for disrupting enemy communications and herbicides for destroying the crops. Leaked info from Hacking Team confirmed Boeing even considered a spyware-distributing drone that would hack into unsecured Wi-Fi networks to deliver its payload. Going head to head against an armed and technologically equal enemy is simply not a role drones can handle at this moment and is highly unlikely they ever will.

mosquito drone

Wait until we figure out quantum computing

A perfect example of what can happen when drones meet their match is the Crimean crisis. In March 2014, reports emerged that the Russian arms corporation Rostec used its Avtobaza system to successfully hack into a US drone flying over Ukraine and land it safely. Pentagon declined to comment on this incident but announced that by 2018 hacker-proof drones will be deployed.

Frying drone brains

shf-cannon-russia-drones

Microwave drone repellent

Rostec also announced an anti-drone microwave defense system to be unveiled at the upcoming Russia Arms Expo (held September 9-12). This system will provide a 360-degree, six-mile coverage of the skies around the defense system and will be able to fry all electronic components of drones and missiles.

Just like burning flies

The US Marines will have their own anti-drone laser weapon station (LWS), which is a 2 kW laser capable of burning off drone’s wings from 2 miles away. However, laser weapons are notoriously unreliable when there is a large amount of dust in the air or during bad weather, and they require constant cooling. Still, lasers are a promising direction anti-drone weapons systems can take, since they have the cheapest cost per ammo round fired.

us-navy-laser anti drone weapon

“Sir, the Chinese have launched 10 quadrillion drones at us!” “Soldier, shoot your rifle at them until our economy collapses”

Where to next?

With the advent of drones, aerial warfare has begun to look like an actual science fiction movie as all sides are rushing to develop proprietary anti-drone systems. It is possible that we are looking at a future where the entire world will be in a perpetual state of low-intensity conflict, whereby it will be impossible to identify who is doing what to whom.

When two sides do finally declare an open war, the situation will become hilariously messy. Drones flying everywhere, lasers and rayguns shooting at them, artillery bombarding lasers and rayguns, operators trying to hack into drones, artillery shooting at the operators… What we once knew as war will literally become just a child’s game, played on a computer screen thousands of miles away from where the bloodshed is taking place, where every casualty is collateral damage.

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38 thoughts on “What Is The Next Step In The Drone Arms Race?”

  1. I’m predicting a drone combat tournament similar to Battlebots. Any venture capitalists out there?

    1. Scrapheap Arsenal
      Flying Robot Wars
      Garage Drone Battles
      Battle Wasps
      … no, seriously, the potential for this genre really has me buzzing. 🙂
      They could even bring Lister and Kryten out of retirement to do the hosting …
      There was also this bloke named Jeremy who used to do this sort of thing, I have a feeling he might possibly be available.

  2. Solving the problem of conventional gunfire on a drone is EASY. You attach two gun barrels in opposite directions with an axis going through the center of mass of the drone. When you fire, one projectile is ejected from each barrel. You use twice the ammo, but maintain stability. The smaller the bullet to drone mass ratio, the less precise you need to be with respect to ammo mass, barrel alignment, and firing timing. To avoid collateral damage, the backwards firing slug can be replaced with packed powder of a dense material (iron filings would work great). This powder package would have the same ejection energy as the solid bullet (providing the same counterbalance energy), but would disintegrate within a few meters into aerial dust.

    1. that’s clever…..isn’t the biggest danger really if someone straps explosives onto the drone and then just flies it straight at the target and then detonates it? I am sure someone will be assassinated like this one day…

      1. Maybe someone will take one of these drones back to 1963 to let us know how that’s going to work out …

      2. someone straps explosives incindiaries

        “…Mexican Free-tailed Bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached…”
        Bat Bomb
        wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat_bomb

        It only takes a spark, to get a fire going.

    2. Except that your ammo now weighs “twice” as much as you have to carry two rounds for each one on target, which means half your payload. Far better than traditional ammunition would be the “jet bullets” that have been developed on and off over the past century. Shoot them from an open tube, and the recoil is minimal.

      1. Military drones would just use small guided missiles, basically RPGs. I was thinking more of the backyard terrorist cobbling something together from parts at walmart. They wouldn’t have access to the high tech stuff. A double gun is cheap and easy to make with typical mechanics tools. The only downside is the double payload, but since such drones would likely be attacking guarded targets, I wouldn’t expect them to fire more than 100 rounds before being destroyed anyway. There’s other options too of course, like a guided bomb dropped from maximum elevation. Radio controlled fins plus a small nose camera of iphone6 quality or better would be quite effective. For the cheapest terrorist, a couple of pointy sticks glued to the front of your fastest drone (ramming speed!) would work on the softer targets. I’m gonna stop now in case there are some government lists I haven’t been added to yet. That’s almost a joke.

  3. I would be more concerned about the robotic revolution and the current military functionality being tested for same. Boston Dynamics has posted their “robotic dog” video that was under contract for the military research lab.

  4. h/t to Texas Arcane for this parable on drone war:

    This is cartoon parable. Despite the fact that mankind is killed, the war still continues. War continued with automated system left by people.One of the last surviving bomber and its pilot still performs its task. The city is dead for a long time. Dead people who built it. Dead people who gave the order to destroy the city. And war will continue until subside echo of humanity.

    Крепость/Fortress
    vimeo.com/67768281

  5. I’m reminded of an old science fiction story where a rebel army has to assault a heavily defended, hi-tech army base surrounded by radar arrays and laser batteries.
    They ride bicycles in and hold up the operators at gunpoint.

    1. The Swiss haven’t had a war for 500 years now, even while surrounded by the Axis powers in WWII.

  6. Aerial drones will improve and also evolve into standoff weapons positioned on borders or ocean stations.
    It is also do-able to make nuclear subs carrying ballistic missiles stationed in undersea. Think about it. Nuclear powered without need for crew, resupply, nothing. Just sit for years with periodic updates from satellite.
    Androids are the ultimate (terminator) but I think that is maybe 50 to 80 years away,
    However, l think land cruisers will play a role in a lot of tactical engagements in the intermediate future. Think Armoured Personnel Carrier sized vehicles controlled sort of locally that support combat troops in towns and cities (or anywhere). These vehicles can be equipped with sniper quality weapons as well as TOW missiles, cannon, mortars etc. And they can be equipped to self destruct to avoid capture or just blow up a formation.
    When I see the US military command bending over to accommodate females in combat roles, you know that the thinking has progressed away from the big shows with high casualties to limited engagements fought by high tech means which will include drones of all sorts.

  7. I used to work for General Atomics. This article is laughable in its naive sensationalism. MQ-1s and -9s are more than capable of holding their own in uncontested airspace – MANPADs can’t touch them. And for contested airspace, the Avenger line is on its way, for use in conjunction with the F-22 and F-35. Integrated air dominance is what it’s about – no single aircraft can do everything.

  8. Simple.. People should declare that all those manning & sending those kind of weapons against civilians, are not protected by any convention or laws. Not important that they are in uniform.. When caught, hanged from the first lamp post immediately as a war criminal ! No Miranda for them !

    1. I just posted my take on this. The source of the problems gets down to scientists and engineers who have no incentives to solve humanity’s problems and easily lured to building destruction instruments of death for their slave masters — all for a paltry salaryman’s wage.
      Unless these men start bringing morality and humanity to their practice, they’ll be hung for crimes against humanity for the never ending escalation of warfare by empowering brutal evil men with more powerful and efficient ways to destroy us..
      We all would do well to learn the technology of disabling and destroying these menacing machines that only steal our freedom on our own dime — to add insult to injury.

  9. I foresee a backlash against scientists and engineers that keep designing and building these instruments of death, destruction and fear. The people will revolt against the technology being used to enslave them and will eventually come to the conclusion that without the scientists and engineers to build and maintain these inhuman monsters, the problem problem will go away. Of course, they’ll have to do something with all the lawyers first.

    1. Don’t be silly, they’ll all be too busy looking at their phones to take any real action. I doubt anyone will notice being enslaved by technology.

  10. A pistol weighs a couple of pounds with its ammo, these drones can carry a pretty powerful bomb, could probably carry a 60mm mortar shell.

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