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Pentagon's New Weapons: Flying Robot Grenades


November 30, 2011
Katie Drummond / DangerRoom, Wired & Spencer Ackerman / DangerRoom, Wired

The military's already got grenades that do plenty more than detonate: They can spray rubber pellets, obliterate underwater opponents and even, uh, be catapulted from the air in a tiny robocopter. But the next generation of grenade? Oh, no biggie, it'll just navigate through the sky on-command, spy on our enemies... and then blow them all up. Or you could use the Switchblade, a teeny-tiny killer drone that fits in a backback and fire at a single foe.

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/11/army-grenades/

Army Wants Grenade 'Bots to Fly, Spy, Then Kill
Katie Drummond / DangerRoom, Wired

(November 28, 2011) -- The military's already got grenades that do plenty more than detonate: They can spray rubber pellets, obliterate underwater opponents and even, uh, be catapulted from the air in a tiny robocopter. But the next generation of grenade? Oh, no biggie, it'll just navigate through the sky on-command, spy on our enemies... and then blow them all up.

At least, if the Army's latest bright idea moves forward. In their new round of small business solicitations, top brass are asking for proposals that'd yield what amounts to a very deadly grenade-drone love child. Or, as the Army's calling it, "A Hovering Tube-Launched Micromunition."

Already, the Army's made some impressive advances where grenade munitions are concerned. Just last year, they ordered up hundreds of "Men in Black" grenade launchers, capable of shooting "smart" grenades loaded with sensors and microchips that communicate with a guidance system. And of course, drone development is so hot right now. Used in surveillance for years, the unmanned vehicles are now getting loaded up with missiles -- or, as the newly developed Switchblade Drone illustrates, turning into missiles themselves. [See story below.]

The Army's grenade-of-tomorrow would be capable of being fired off from a launcher before it would "hover/loiter by using propulsion and glide" according to navigational instructions sent by on-the-ground operators. The loitering grenade would be able to maneuver itself for 10 minutes and up to 0.6 miles. Of course, the grenades wouldn't just mosey around. Each one could "survey enemy targets by using a miniature day/night camera" and offer video feed and GPS coordinates to troops.

It's easy to see how that kind of intel -- taken inside compound walls, on the 12th floor of a building or anywhere else troops can't readily, safely access -- could be incredibly valuable. Not to mention that once soldiers have the info they need, the hovering grenade can make the ultimate sacrifice.

The Army wants each one loaded with "a lethal payload" to blow whatever's spied by the grenade's cameras to smithereens. Sounds a lot like the Switchblade, which will offer surveillance and lethality in a "backpack sized" device, except presumably even smaller. At this rate, it's only a matter of time before death-from-above shrinks enough to turn the Air Force's adorable micro-aviary into an extremely deadly one.




SwitchBlade quick deployable Drone Plane from dizzymarkus on Vimeo.



US Troops Will Soon Get Tiny Kamikaze Drone
Spencer Ackerman / DangerRoom, Wired

(October 18, 2011) -- AeroVironment calls its teeny-tiny killer drone the Switchblade. Essentially a guided missile small enough to fit in a backback and fire at a single foe, it might be the kind of blade US troops soon bring to a gunfight with Afghan insurgents.

Most tiny drones the military uses, like the Puma or the Raven, are snoopers, not killers. Missiles are too heavy for those unmanned planes to carry, which is why the killer drones are usually the big boys like Predators or Reapers. That's starting to change: a Northern California company called Arcturus has a drone with a mere 17-foot wingspan that totes a 10-pound missile.

AeroVironment, manufacturer of many tiny drones, is offering a different paradigm. Instead of carrying a missile, the drone is the missile. Unfolded from a size small enough to fit in a soldier's rucksack -- like a Switchblade; get it? -- and launched from a tube, the spy cameras on board the drone scout an enemy position before the soldier controlling it sends it barreling into the target. It's a strictly one-way mission.

The video above, which AeroVironment showed at the August drone expo known as AUVSI, shows the problem that the Switchblade could solve. Troops on patrol come under sustained, accurate insurgent fire and get pinned behind their truck. Close air support could strafe the insurgents, but will take time to arrive. Mini-drones can spot the insurgent's position, but can't kill him. Boom: Switchblade marries those solutions together. And according to AFP, it's "coming soon" to US troops.

This isn't the first attempt to miniaturize killer drones. In addition to the Arcturus drone, a few years ago, enterprising engineers put a rifle on a Vigilante unmanned helicopter for something they called the Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper System. It's nowhere near as small as a Switchblade, but nowhere near as big as a Predator, either. In 2008, the Air Force tested out tiny killer drones in a mysterious experiment called Project Anubis.

And soon, the Switchblade won't be the only Kamikaze drone out there. The spinning circles of death known as the Quadrocopter Microdrone is a homebrew combining tiny guns, laser targeting systems and an Xbox Kinect-style camera to hunt prey, with an optional iPad hookup for remote control.

But it appears the Switchblade is the first tiny kamikaze drone the US military actually bought. On July 29, the Army gave AeroVironment a $4.9 million contract for "rapid fielding" of an unspecified number of Switchblades to "deployed combat forces." That probably means Afghanistan, if AFP's right.

$4.9 million isn't a lot of money when annual defense budgets reach $700 billion. But experience has shown that troops in warzones are cautious about using even tiny drones, for fear that they'll misuse a robot that their individual units might consider costly. That's what happened when Marines in Iraq got the Raven in 2008. A drone that they don't have to worry about using a second time, though, might be a different story.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

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