Defense Company Plans to Grow Small Drones in Lab

Defense Company Plans to Grow Small Drones in Lab

In Part 2 of our Analyst Q&A with Strategic Defense Intelligence, Ruchi Chaturvedi discussed the potential role for UAVs in defense. She spoke about the security threat posed by terrorist organizations, and how it has created a greater need for defense systems capable of carrying out surveillance and intelligence gathering missions. The military has found UAVs to be exceedingly useful in this respect, providing real-time coverage from altitudes of up to 60,000 feet.

In recent years, their role has expanded to areas including electronic attack (EA) and strike missions. In this blog, we will examine a string of recent developments that highlight how the military role of UAVs is growing at unprecedented rates.

BOEING’S DRONE LAB

It is clear that Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, recognises the huge opportunities in the military and commercial drone market. They have opened the Collaborative Autonomous Systems Laboratory (CASL), which is dedicated to interconnected drones that operate without any human guidance.

The American multinational unveiled two new autonomous vehicles at an event last Thursday - a four-wheeled vehicle and a flying drone that hovered above it. These interconnected drones are expected to be one of Boeing’s main focuses moving forward, as they attempt to gain a firmer foothold in the market.

They are hoping that this investment will give them an advantage when competing against companies like Lockheed Martin and General Atomics for military drone contracts.

HOW TO GROW A MILITARY DRONE

Meanwhile, BAE Systems are taking an altogether military UAVs. They have teamed up with the University of Glasgow on an initiative to grow UAVs in computer-controlled chemical vats over a number of weeks.

The idea belongs to the University’s Regius Professor Lee Cronin, and is a process that combines computer and chemical manufacturing. They believe their chemputer can build small UAVs on a molecular level out of environmentally sustainable materials using advanced chemical processes.

If successful, the process could significantly cut costs and provide a shorter development cycle. It’s also a reflection of the growing demand from the military market for swarms of smaller drone aircraft that can be built to custom specifications.

The pair will unveil their idea at the upcoming Farnborough International Airshow, which runs from July 11 to 17. Until then, you can watch a video on the subject here.

NAVY TO DEMO SWARMING DRONES

As we touched on in the last section, the army and navy are very interested in fleets of small drones that can be built quickly to carry out a variety of missions. The Navy recently announced its first drone “air-show”, which will take place at-sea this month. The demonstration will feature dozens of Raytheon-built Coyote UAVs launched in rapid succession and swarming in formation.

Their goal has been to develop UAVs that can fly together without the need for individual control, and this is now possible thanks to the Navy’s Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST). These UAVS will differ from others in that the operator does not control an individual aircraft, but pilots the whole swarm as a single unit.

A swarm of UAVs could be used for a variety of different operations, such as intelligence-gathering or jamming communications that might otherwise be accomplished with manned aircraft.

TRACKING ENEMY DRONES

The American military are not the only ones implementing UAVs for military operations. A recent article on breakingdefense.com detailed how the army is experimenting with drone-detecting radar as it looks to defend itself from enemy drones.

They are using Lockheed Martin’s AN/TPQ-53, a truck-mounted radar that was originally designed to track incoming fire. In recent tests, the AN/TPQ-53 proved itself capable of tracking and identifying multiple drones. Interestingly, this didn’t interfere with its original function of tracking incoming rockets, artillery shells and mortar rounds.

NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP

The use of UAVs as a weapon’s system has vastly increased during the Obama administration. This has been met with harsh criticism from some political, legal and public sectors. Last week, Obama’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) finally released statistics from counter-terrorism strikes during the period January 20th 2009 to December 31st 2015.

According to the report, a total of 473 strikes have killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants that are considered to be at war with the United States. Most of the attention has focused on the figures surrounding non-combatants. The statement estimates that this number is between 64 and 116, and includes both clearly innocent civilians and others for whom there was insufficient evidence to be sure whether they were combatants.

The government’s figures have been met with a significant degree of scepticism. Their non-combatant death count is far lower than estimates compiled by independent organizations that try to track what the government calls targeted killings. These include the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New America and The Long War Journal.

The report doesn’t not include a breakdown by strike, year or country and provides no names. It only covers airstrikes “outside areas of active hostilities,” which means that civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are not included.

The New York Times makes this interesting observation:

“...according to multiple studies by Human Rights Watch, Yemen’s Parliament and others, an American cruise missile strike in Yemen on Dec. 17, 2009, killed 41 civilians, including 22 children and a dozen women. If those 41 are included in the new official count, as appears likely, that would leave only 23 civilians killed in all other strikes since 2009. By nearly all independent accounts, that number is implausibly low.”

Conclusion

Ruchi Chaturvedi made the point that involving UAVs in intelligence and surveillance operations had undoubtedly resulted in improved awareness for military forces. According to SDI’s estimates, the global military UAV market is expected to grow at a substantial rate to reach US$13.7 billion by 2026.

Another report published on Research and Markets forecasts that the worldwide market for military drones will increase to $6.8 billion by 2022. This is likely due to the massive investments in R&D, and rising competition between countries to possess modern and advanced weapons and technologies.

The use of defense drones, and in particular UAVs for strike missions, does raise ethical questions. The discrepancy between the government’s figures and other estimates is troubling. But it seems military drones are here to stay, with American officials saying the drone program will endure beyond the current administration.

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