Emerging technologies in military drones

June 18, 2021 12:29 PM

The rise of drones to indispensability is unsurprising, given their high level of effectiveness, relatively low-price tag, and high degree of deniability they provide on the battlefield.

droneSubmersible UAV: Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University. (Photo source)

By Debajit Sarkar, 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) commonly referred to as drones have become the weapon of choice in modern warfare, with both state and non-state entities employing them. The rise of drones to indispensability is unsurprising, given their high level of effectiveness, relatively low-price tag, and high degree of deniability they provide on the battlefield.

India too is planning to import drones that have not just Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities but also drones that can carry out precision strikes on enemy targets with stand off missiles.

Existing Technologies

Many of the technology areas below that have already been developed will witness sustained innovation based on the growth of the military UAV industry during the forecast period.

1. RADAR/LiDar

2. Wireless/Cellular Communications

3. Optoelectronics

4. Photonics

5. Actuators/Connectors

6. Satellite Communications

7. Inertial Navigation System

8. Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS)

9. Global Navigation Satellite System

10. Gallium arsenide (GaAs) Solar Cells

Emerging Technologies

For the military UAV industry, Infrared Thermography (IRT) and Hyperspectral Imaging (HSI) are two major technology areas of focus.

Infrared Thermography (IRT): For years, IRT has been used in a variety of industries.

Recent advances in advanced thermal imaging cameras, on the other hand, use focal plane arrays (FPAs) that use uncooled microbolometers as FPA sensors. IRT has long been used in military applications.

Hyperspectral Imaging (HSI): HSI is a new area in which the advantages of optical spectroscopy as an analytical instrument are combined with optical imaging’s two-dimensional object visualisation.

Designs for possible future drone technologies held by patent holders may influence how military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are used in the future. There are a few developments that could lay the groundwork for expanding and transforming military UAV technology in the future. Some of these are:

1. Artificial Intelligence powered UAVs

Improved ability to recognise and respond to their environment would undoubtedly be a key feature of future military UAVs. If we want to trust them to fly autonomously, we’ll need to develop AI systems like Computer Vision and Motion Planning to help them do so. And it’s starting to happen.

2. Perching and Resting

By saving battery power Perching helps small UAVs extend their time of operation. In addition to the perching capability, researchers are working to build UAVs that can make and stabilise contacts with the environment, allowing the UAV to use less energy while maintaining its altitude.

Landing gear design for UAVs with Perching & Resting capability

Kaiyu Hang, Ximin Lyu, Haoran Song, Johannes A. Stork, Aaron M. Dollar, Danica Kragic, Fu Zhang. (Photo source)Kaiyu Hang, Ximin Lyu, Haoran Song, Johannes A. Stork, Aaron M. Dollar, Danica Kragic, Fu Zhang. (Photo source)

 

3. Submersible UAV

Engineers at John Hopkins University are designing a submersible UAV that can be launched from an underwater station or unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), which can float to the surface from depths of hundreds of feet. It can stay inactive when not in use even under a murky environment.

4. Airborne Communication Nodes

Aside from being sensor and shooter platforms, UAVs can also act as airborne communications nodes, similar to satellites, offering mobile network coverage for manoeuvring forces. This frees up manned systems to focus on higher-value missions while still providing a cost-effective way to maintain secure communications.

UAVs will follow the paradigm change toward a network-centric warfare concept, seamlessly integrating into all three main areas of defence systems: sensor, shooter, and C2 network. By providing platforms for deploying sensors, weapons, and communications architecture, UAVs can enable the force commander to see first, understand first, act first, and finish decisively.

5. Battery Technology

Military UAVs can gain new value thanks to rapid advancements in battery technology.

Lithium-ion batteries’ energy density is increasing by 5 to 7 per cent each year, and their lifetime is predicted to double in the next five years. Small military UAVs will be able to fly for more than an hour without recharging as a result of these advancements, allowing for a wide range of new applications.

The nature of strike and reconnaissance operations involving UAVs will also undergo some changes in the future. If there’s one lesson to be learned from Turkey’s UAV activity in Syria, it’s that costly UAVs/drones like the Anka or Orion shouldn’t be used for close support because they’re expensive, don’t carry enough weapons, and are easy targets. Instead, we believe it would be more prudent to arm the large, heavy drones and have them fly at higher, safer altitudes, while smaller drones fly at lower altitudes searching for targets and attracting ground fire for the higher-flying drones to detect and then aim in the future.

Small assault drones could be carried by the high-flying drones and released for a closer look and direct attack. However, we believe that a ball turret with optics and sensors to direct their command guided missiles would be suitable in most cases, as a high-altitude launch would give them excellent performance against pretty much any target, regardless of camouflage.

Military spending on UAV technology is predicted to rise as a fraction of significant military budgets, such as the US defence budget and China’s defence budget, providing a huge potential for specialized drone manufacturers and software developers. While drones will never totally replace soldiers, in the current strategic atmosphere, this question is becoming less relevant.

(The author is a subject matter expert on competitive intelligence and market research in the aerospace and defence industry. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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