Drones. Death and Data

Tuesday, 18 October 2022 — The Van Says…

It might not look much, but the impact drones are making is causing a revolution on the battlefield.

Preamble

We have all become familiar with the drones and UAVs that have been used by the US over recent years that have caused such death and hardship across the Middle East and elsewhere, but current hostilities in the Ukraine have highlighted the value of smaller aircraft and brought the advent of a new form of warfare. This article will examine what these new drones are and how they will impact both this conflict as well as warfare in general.

An Age Ago

When looking at the development and use of these small aircraft over the last decade, we can draw a number of parallels between them and the advent of aviation itself a little over a century ago.

Before the First World War began, aircraft were seen as little more than a novelty by most, with few appreciating their potential as a weapon of war. In the eyes of a pre-war public, they were seen more as toys of the rich flown by eccentrics rather than being anything of any real use. Four years later however, a changed world viewed planes and their pilots in a very different light indeed, and the full potential of aviation began to be acknowledged by military leaders.

A Century Later

It was exactly a century after the start of the First World War that conflict ravaged Eastern Europe. At this time, small drones and remote control quadcopters were, just as aircraft a hundred years before, seen by the public as Amazon delivery devices at best and at worst, just toys for tormenting family pets.

From a military perspective, in spite of the Ukrainian Army being for the most part equipped with decrepit Soviet-era kit, western governments ensured that small drones played an increasing role in military affairs. These small mass-produced craft only have a range of around ten miles, yet rapid advances in technology have ensured that they have features of very great use in certain military applications. The use by Kiev of drones is probably best exemplified by the horror attack which left a five-year old child dead in 2021, yet their uses for other operations was becoming increasingly commonplace for a number of reasons that need to be examined further.

Taking off Fast

To understand the burgeoning importance that they have, we have to understand how they work in order to understand why they perform their new-found roles so well. This article is not looking at either ‘disposable’ craft such as the Geran-2 or larger machines such as Reaper drones, therefore our focus is on equipment that is now mass-produced in the Far East and available to the rest of the world via mail order.

These are invariably battery powered rotary-wing craft, and it has only been the advances of Li-ion battery technology over the last few years that has made drones a viable proposition for military applications. Coupled with that are other developments concerning GPS (or the equivalent Russian GLONASS system), cameras and the accessories that can be attached to them to perform specific roles. Progress has also been made regarding brushless motors bringing greater power and efficiency, this being critical to the missions these small aircraft are now being tasked with. Other features such as ‘return to home’ means that once a mission has been accomplished, the craft will return to a given point with no further input from the operator being necessary.

Useful UAVS

It might not look much, but Chinese manufacturer DJI is under fire from Washington due to the effectiveness of small drones such as these.

This technology has come together and depending on the craft, the results can be astounding when we remember how recently small drones became commonplace. Most of the drones being fielded today are of the typical quadcopter layout, four rotors carrying the aircraft as well as moving and maneuvering it. A typical model will weigh under a pound, be able to carry up to eight ounces, and have a range of four miles whilst being able to remain airborne for around half an hour. These can be bought on the open market for under five hundred dollars. They are ideal not only for dropping small munitions and grenades on unsuspecting enemies, but with their on-board cameras, they are able to direct a wealth of information in real time to their operators and then to commanders. This has been of invaluable assistance to the Russian Armed Forces as this allows them zero artillery fire as well as adapt their strategy as a situation develops.

Heavyweight Helicopters

Larger drones such as these can carry anything from rations to rockets, just depending on the task in hand.

Another form of drone that is gaining traction with the military are the larger eight-rotor ‘octocopter’ models that can transport useful quantities of materials over short distances in support of ground operations. Their range and autonomy is considerably less than their smaller counterparts, yet with a lift capacity in many cases of more than a hundred pounds, military leaders currently believe that this form of transport may give a decisive advantage in certain engagements. Just as with any aircraft however, their effectiveness will only be as good as their operators, and we now need to look at who is at the controls of these new weapons of war.

Drone Drivers

Just as with the flyers of World War I, most drone operators have no formal training, and for a very good reason indeed. These machines are principally used by the general public and have been designed from the outset to be child’s play to operate. These craft are quite literally ‘plug and play’, meaning that any soldier can pick up the controls and have a fair chance of flying it. With there now being dedicated military units tasked with operating them, a few hours of experience can turn boots on the ground into arms in the air, countless operations daily giving great testimony to the competence that can be rapidly gained.

Small and Straightforward

One of the great advantages these machines possess are their weight, and with them being as light and-portable as they are, this means that if necessary, they can be carried to their operational area in a rucksack. Moreover, with them being able to take off vertically, unless being used in wooded areas, little or no preparation is required before they are used. This makes for a very rapid and easy insertion, their recovery being equally simple.

Summary

Whilst not the revolution that military aviation was a century ago, drones are an innovation that is making a huge impact on the battlefield today. Cheap to buy, easy to fly and requiring no infrastructure or preparation to operate, the destruction and wealth of information they furnish can quite literally make them worth their weight in gold in military engagements.

Both the Russians and Ukrainians (with a lot of help from NATO) are making increasing use of these new Wunderwaffen, yet only time will tell how they will develop, and with that, how they will change the course of warfare into the future…

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