Some historians trace the use of drones back to the mid-1980s . They’ve been used in war as a scouting tool to identify targets for artillery and airstrikes. As technology evolved and it became easier to miniaturize components and improve their power cells, the capability of drones has also increased immensely. They are cheaper, smaller, more accessible and more useful.
In our society today, drones are used by professional photographers to gather incredible aerial pictures. Teens and kids play with mini remote-controlled toy drones for entertainment. As the size and commercial use of drones continued to expand, the military took notice and realized these smaller mini and even micro-drones could have a use on the battlefield.
In 2004, at the annual Air Force Association conference in Orlando, Florida, a new type of drone program was introduced—one that allowed a convoy commander in Iraq to have a full 360-degree situational awareness of the path his convoy was traveling down. With a scout drone overhead of the convoy, the commander could spot threats and possible IEDs before the vehicles entered the kill box.
At the time, this was a revolutionary idea. But that capability for a convoy commander was eventually miniaturized and broken down to the platoon and even squad level when the Army and Marines began to introduce their own mini-drones for their soldiers.
Military thriller authors James Rosone and Miranda Watson have studied the use of drones and their probable use in warfare extensively in their research. They have written about mini or scout drones in many of their fictional books from their 2017 work Battlefield Ukraine, all the way through to their upcoming series the Monroe Doctrine, set to be released early in 2021. Drones are truly going to become one of the defining tools of the modern battlefield.
What are Mini-Drones?
Mini-drones are small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also referred to as nano-drones. Besides being as small as just a few inches long and a few pounds, they are also quiet, and can come in dark colors, making them harder to detect, especially at night. They are fairly inexpensive, easy to launch, and come equipped with multiple cameras to send valuable pictures and video back to the operator.
Different Mini Drones Used in the Military
Different branches of the military are already at work getting mini-drones in the hands of soldiers. By 2015, the Black Hornet PD-100 PRS (Personal Reconnaissance Systems), developed by Prox Dynamics of Norway, had already deployed with U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations teams . The U.S. Army purchased the Black Hornet PRS in small quantities in 2016 and 2017 for testing and evaluation purposes. This drone was specifically designed for the dismounted soldier, and it was used by such soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The pocket-sized Black Hornet is 6.6 inches in length and weighs just 18 grams. The whole system package—including two drones, a controller, a monitor and docking station—weighs about three pounds and can be mounted on a soldier’s chest. It’s ready to use right out of the box. It’s nearly silent, flies at 13 mph, has a range of about one mile and a flight time of 25 minutes. It’s weatherproof and can withstand winds of up to 15 knots and even gusts of 20 knots. The drone’s three cameras can shoot and transmit live video and still pictures (even at night with its thermal camera) back to the operator, who can view them on a flip-down monitor. The Black Hornet also secures its data with AES encryption.
After a successful test run, the Army decided to buy 9,000 Black Hornet systems over a span of three years to issue to its nine-man infantry squads, which are the smallest and most vulnerable units . In June 2018, FLIR Systems (which acquired Prox Dynamics) announced it was awarded its first contract, worth $2.6M to deliver an initial batch of Black Hornet PRS through the Army’s Soldier Borne Sensor (SBS) program . In early 2019, the Army awarded the company a $39.6M contract to deliver more drones . By the summer, soldiers were already training with it before being deployed to Afghanistan. FLIR received an additional $20M contract in May 2020 to provide more of the nano-UAV systems, with GPS-guided autopilot, which support platoon and small unit-level surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities .
Platoons are also using the slightly larger Short-Range Reconnaissance (SRR) drone with vertical takeoff and landing, which entered service in early 2020. In 2019, the Army selected U.S.-based Vantage Robotics  to develop the Vesper , a portable ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) drone that weighs 2 pounds, takes 90 seconds to launch, and can fly for 50 miles at 45 mph. It also provides security on all communications and data storage with AES encryption.
Communication security is an especially important piece for the military because of long-held concerns over a potential security breach with drone systems. The Army issued a ban on Chinese-made drones for this reason in 2017, and then the Pentagon followed with a ban on all small commercial drones, though some exceptions were allowed in urgent situations. Now, five secure U.S.-made drones, including the Vesper, have been approved by the U.S. Defense Department for military units to purchase . The decision was announced in August 2020 after a month-long review. Other secure, approved models include Altavian’s M440 Ion, Parrot’s Anafi USA, Skydio’s X2-D, and Teal Drones’ Golden Eagle.
The U.S. Marine Corps is also using InstantEye quadcopters. It acquired 800 InstantEye MK-2 (generation 3) systems back in 2018 for infantry units as part of the “Quads for Squads” program . Each system has two quadcopters that take off vertically and a small ground control station. The drones went to all deploying battalions first. These small drones weigh about one pound and deploy quickly. Though they capture video, they do not store it, so there is no data risk if the aircraft is lost. They are small enough to be carried in a pack and are operated by one person. They can fly at 35mph for 30 minutes, withstanding 30 mph winds. InstantEye Robotics says its MK-2 systems have been in use across all U.S. military branches .
In 2019, the U.S. Air Force planned to order the InstantEye MK-3 (generation 4) systems, which is part of the company’s digital fleet . This drone weighs about 4 pounds and can fly for up to 50 minutes, withstanding 30mph winds. The drone transfers information to the ground control station and does not store any of it. The Navy and Marine Corps also requested 200 InstantEye quadcopters that same year.
Mini Drones: The Future of Military Warfare
There is no dispute that drones are the future of military warfare. They are quiet, small, getting harder to detect, and even more difficult to defend against. We have now entered an age in warfare where a squad leader can scout an area from the air before sending his soldiers into harm’s way. He can use the drone to inspect dangerous terrain, spy on a probable enemy position, search for weapons, or securely gather and store valuable information from pictures and video, both day and night. The drone can be used to suppress an enemy target and call for fire based on the real-time feed without the need to expose their soldiers . Everything can be done from a safe distance without jeopardizing the lives of troops.
Mini drones provide soldiers in every squad a critical advantage on the battlefield. They’re easy for troops on the ground to transport and use. Many weigh just a few pounds and do not require much training. If one crashes, gets lost, stolen, or destroyed during an operation, it can be easily replaced and discarded. But most of all, such a drone can give ground troops an ability to identify all threats beyond visual lines of sight . A squad trying to go over a hill or clear a city block can be blind to unseen threats, but a small, quickly deployable drone can give squads a real-time ability to look into these threats and prepare themselves before entering the area.
Many mini drones have the same situational awareness as their larger counterparts with more sophisticated equipment. With a camera in the air, soldiers can see farther and around obstacles that they previously wouldn’t have been able to see around. Vehicles that may contain persons of interest or explosives can be safely inspected from afar by using a small drone with cameras. While a mini drone is expendable and can be replaced, a soldier’s life cannot.
Next Evolution in Mini Drone Technology
With the incredible advances in drone technology over the last twenty years, one might ask, what could be next? In James Rosone and Miranda Watson’s Falling Empires series, they explored the concept of Unmanned Combat Aerial Drones called UCADs. In the future, the infantry squad will not only be able to deploy mini scout drones, these same drones will be equipped with either a half a pound or full pound of C4 explosives or even a single-shot barrel, capable of carrying out a targeted assassination.
If a drone swarm of dozens of these types of UCADs were deployed against an infantry platoon, they could systematically hunt each member down, either shooting them with a precision kill single shot or launching a Kamikaze attack before detonating their explosive charge. The UCAD might be the most scary and terrifying development in drone warfare. Imagine, if you will, a few dozen of these types of drones being pre-programmed with a target to attack and being dispersed over a city or the capital of a nation. Using facial recognition technology, the drone could scan the faces of a crowd until it locates its assigned target. Then, depending on the drone, it could fire a single precision shot at the target, or it could dive in on them, detonating an explosive charge and killing the person.
While unsuccessful, this exact type of attack took place on August 4th, 2018, when two drones detonated explosives near Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. Whether this was a legitimate assassination attempt or a false flag event as some have proposed, it proved we have entered an age of targeted assassinations through drones.
Rosone and Watson demonstrated in their fictional books Vengeance and Retribution how the Chinese army could use UCADs against US Forces. They also integrated multiple aspects of how US Special Operations Command now uses drones to call in airstrikes, spot for snipers, and document war crimes in real-time as they are happening. If you find the use of drones fascinating and want to learn more about how they are being woven into the fabric of future combat, then check out any of Rosone and Watson’s books.