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Mardi, 18 Octobre 2011 16:00

U.S. Troops Will Soon Get Tiny Kamikaze Drone

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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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.


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