Field-tested in spy and kill missions in the vast deserts of the Middle East, drones of all shapes and sizes are soon to come back to mainland US and enter mainstream consciousness. Don’t worry, the sky isn’t about to fall – it’s about to be swarming with drones.
Lock and launch
Today, every engineering enthusiast who has a pistol and a drone can jury rig something like this. Though the concept of a flying toy that can murder people definitely sounds cool, there are many problems with drones wielding guns, the biggest of which is recoil.
In this video by FPSRussia, there is supposedly a quadcopter with a machine gun attached that blows up mannequins and then flies into the back seat of a car before self-destructing, destroying it in the process. The only issue is that anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Mythbusters can see that explosives were used, along with a dash of terrible CGI. Besides, as we’ve learned from the pistol video, any type of burst fire from such mounted machine gun would inevitably send the quadcopter spinning uncontrollably and spraying bullets everywhere.
Fiery death from the skies
This incompatibility with conventional firearms makes drones largely unsuitable for combat usage in urban environments where anything can happen. However, they are still a useful asset to any army and excel at two support roles: reconnaissance and precision strikes.
Small drones, such as the RQ-11 Raven, are fairly cheap to produce, can be carried in a backpack, launched by hand and possess an electric motor that allows them silent flight. Their larger brethren, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, can carry Hellfire and Sidewinder missiles, laser-guided bombs and are controlled via satellites.
How good are they?
Cameras, bombs and missiles on a drone — that’s like attaching a sword and a spear to a tank and charging enemies with it. Can’t the Pentagon think of anything more awesome? Actually, no. Despite the obvious advantage of not requiring a pilot present, drones are still not that good in close combat and are relatively easy to shoot down, as seen in this video. The only obvious solution is to make them smaller, faster and capable of attacking in large numbers at once, which is what the Office of Naval Research is currently doing with its LOCUST program.
Launched in large numbers, these agile drones will autonomously organize attack formations and shoot at the target from all directions, overwhelming it within seconds. At least that’s how they could be used in theory.
Wi-Fi hacking mosquito
In reality, the most suitable weapons for any drone mission would still be unconventional, such as jamming devices for disrupting enemy communications and herbicides for destroying the crops. Leaked info from Hacking Team confirmed Boeing even considered a spyware-distributing drone that would hack into unsecured Wi-Fi networks to deliver its payload. Going head to head against an armed and technologically equal enemy is simply not a role drones can handle at this moment and is highly unlikely they ever will.
A perfect example of what can happen when drones meet their match is the Crimean crisis. In March 2014, reports emerged that the Russian arms corporation Rostec used its Avtobaza system to successfully hack into a US drone flying over Ukraine and land it safely. Pentagon declined to comment on this incident but announced that by 2018 hacker-proof drones will be deployed.
Frying drone brains
Rostec also announced an anti-drone microwave defense system to be unveiled at the upcoming Russia Arms Expo (held September 9-12). This system will provide a 360-degree, six-mile coverage of the skies around the defense system and will be able to fry all electronic components of drones and missiles.
Just like burning flies
The US Marines will have their own anti-drone laser weapon station (LWS), which is a 2 kW laser capable of burning off drone’s wings from 2 miles away. However, laser weapons are notoriously unreliable when there is a large amount of dust in the air or during bad weather, and they require constant cooling. Still, lasers are a promising direction anti-drone weapons systems can take, since they have the cheapest cost per ammo round fired.
Where to next?
With the advent of drones, aerial warfare has begun to look like an actual science fiction movie as all sides are rushing to develop proprietary anti-drone systems. It is possible that we are looking at a future where the entire world will be in a perpetual state of low-intensity conflict, whereby it will be impossible to identify who is doing what to whom.
When two sides do finally declare an open war, the situation will become hilariously messy. Drones flying everywhere, lasers and rayguns shooting at them, artillery bombarding lasers and rayguns, operators trying to hack into drones, artillery shooting at the operators… What we once knew as war will literally become just a child’s game, played on a computer screen thousands of miles away from where the bloodshed is taking place, where every casualty is collateral damage.