Thursday, September 14, 2023

Lightweight infantry drones are getting smarter - and deadlier


In the light of what we've seen in Ukraine recently, I was intrigued by an announcement from Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI).  IAI brought out its Rotem loitering reconnaissance and light attack drone (capable of hitting individuals and small targets such as light vehicles) some years ago, and it's been successfully used in combat.  Now it's upgraded it, releasing the Rotem Alpha.  Flight Global reports:

Alon Tamir, senior business development and marketing manager at IAI’s MBT Missiles division, tells FlightGlobal that the new product builds on its experience with the lightweight, man-portable Rotem L. This includes the ability for the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicle to touch down mid-mission and perform a so-called perching, or ambush operation.

Such a technique can extend total mission time from loitering for 1h to being on call for as much as 24h, Tamir says. “We can fly for 20km [10.8nm], land and wait for the enemy to arrive,” he explains. The system has a communication link range of twice this distance.

Once called back into action, the UAV “can fly and hover at a low-altitude profile to build situational awareness and execute an attack”, IAI says.

“As a VTOL platform, it can be launched and landed between trees, structures, and other types of harsh terrain,” the company notes.

Tamir notes that the Rotem Alpha uses the same tablet-based ground control unit as the smaller Rotem L quadcopter, which is already in use with multiple nations, including NATO nations.

“Rotem Alpha’s sensor suite autonomously detects and locates hostile enemy fires, like artillery, rockets, and missile launchers, and then investigates and engages a direct attack using its electro-optical day and night seeker,” IAI says.

The design also has potential application for use in maritime operations, the company says, including being launched from a small surface vessel.

There's more at the link.

Here's an IAI publicity video about Rotem Alpha.

Several points intrigue me.

  1. The drone can be carried in a backpack, as well as on a vehicle or small boat.  This makes it widely available on a battlefield - it doesn't have to be launched from a rear area after receiving a request from the "sharp end".
  2. Small units such as platoons or even squads can now launch their own smart weapons - not just reconnaissance drones - on demand.  That gives them tremendous tactical flexibility.
  3. It can "perch" in a tree or among some rocks for an extended period, waiting for targets to appear.  That means attacking forces can't be sure whether there's a threat ahead or not.  If it's not flying, the drone is much harder to detect.
  4. As well as being directed by an operator from a distance, the drone has its own sensors, and can find its own targets if necessary.  That means, even if its operator is killed or his control tablet is damaged, the drone can act autonomously (if so instructed beforehand) to find and kill anything moving in its area.  It won't help an attacker to take out the operator.
The combination of these features makes it very dangerous indeed on a battlefield.  Theoretically, a defender need no longer deploy light artillery or mortars, or armored vehicles, to defend an area.  Infantry equipped with a few hundred of these drones can keep out almost any threat.

Of course, the next step will be to equip attacking troops with such weapons as well.  That won't be long in coming - then we'll be at a tactical stalemate once more.  The days when an advanced weapon would confer an advantage lasting years are over, I suspect - it's too easy to copy such technology.



jsallison said...

And I thought the battlefield was dangerous when I was tootling around on my Sheridan, sheesh.

markshere2 said...

these dummies are trying to make the "terminator" series into a documentary.

This will not end well for humans.

Mark 1:1 said...

When I initially read the headline, I envisioned a UAV that might use a gun. Therefore, I wondered how it might overcome the kick.

However, on viewing the video you provided, it is obvious that the things use shaped charges. Interesting and deadly (especially with the stealth "perching" capabilities).

Great post.

Aesop said...

"Theoretically, a defender need no longer deploy light artillery or mortars, or armored vehicles, to defend an area. Infantry equipped with a few hundred of these drones can keep out almost any threat."

Now, substitute "border patrol" for "defender" and "infantry", recognize that we've had the same capability with larger drones for years, and ask yourself why both parties insist securing our southern border is "too hard", and have now gone whole-hog at welcoming them all in with open arms, by the hundreds of thousands, other than because they want them here.

If you've been voting [R] because you thought it made any difference, you might want to strap a tourniquet to your neck to keep your head from exploding.

HMS Defiant said...

Screw the battlefield, it’s a perfect assassin and the era of public figures exposing themselves is truly coming to an end.

Old NFO said...

And this is JUST what is being released...

Zaphod said...

Wonder if there's a software option for it to cry out in pain as it fires its shaped charge? :D

Russians and Ukes have been getting good results with repurposed shaped charge component of RPG strapped to small drones.

We've all seen plenty of grenades and mortar bombs being dropped from small drones.

Must have also been done by now, but haven't yet seen any video of flying Claymores -- which are another pretty obvious move -- behind, flanking, and *above* infantry become options.

BGnad said...

One wonders what the chaos will be like when both sides of a conflict are widely using drones in this manner.
And what sort of anti-drone countermeasures are being developed and are yet to be seen...

Aesop said...


Drones with sound sensors and Claymores as hunter-hillers of other drones will be the next logical step.

And of course, once there's a Claymore strapped on, it becomes a Dual-Purpose drone, for other drones, or soft targets of opportunity.

But of course, as Der Drone Zeppelin Kömmandur has assured us earnestly and repeatedly, this is only true for military drones.

It will be UNPOSSIBLE!!! for any terrorist group to think of swarming the World Series or the Superbowl with COTS-based Claymore drones.

Because reasons. >/sarc<

Anonymous said...

Yeah yeah yeah, so _VERY_ Buck Rogers.

Right now they seem scary. Any if you were infantry on the ground facing them, they would be terrifying as we work out what they can do and how to mitigate against them. You & your friends bleed while the rest of us watch - as men die figuring it out - all live on youtube etc.

However, let's get real. Micro/mini UAVs just another pawn's tool on the battlefield. Battlefield UAVs are super-secret flying computers with cameras, targeting lasers, radio transceivers, and a payload. Ever so reliable. One could never use decoys, track the signals, spoof the signals, corrupt the signals, issue a signal that make it go boom early, turn off etc, etc, etc. Will the UAV work in rain? Does lightning interfere with it? How much wind can they handle?

Look at the teething problems with the M16, and how long it took to get something as simple as a _rifle_ sorted.

Look at the issues running a standard home PC or mac or any device that touches the internet. Electronic stuff is game changing - when it works.

Yes, you or your friends might be unlucky in these early days of UAVs. But countermeasures will arise, and having flown many civilian UAVs - the damn things are really fragile.

LB said...

Gee, why send the FBI or state police to arrest/execute "rebellious" gun owners, when they can send drones to blow up their houses? Are mysterious "gas explosions" going to be more prevalent? Will execution by drone become common? Interesting times. . .

Yeah, I'm paranoid. With the actions and stated goals of the current regime, I'm probably not paranoid enough.

0007 said...

For an interesting take on the terrorist use of drones, I would suggest checking outyou to Mark Greaney's book, "Relentless" from his "Grey Man" series.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of that teen drone enthusiast who mounted a gun on his drone just to show it can be done.

Although this was not illegal, the government still found ways to get him.The cops went after him for parking in a library lot after hours to use the wifi. Although he was in his car the entire time, some news outlets sensationalized it saying he kicked the officers (like a couple officers couldn't subdue a teen throwing kicks). Later they accused him of kiddie porn -

Francis Turner said...

This kind of drone was something I also predicted last year in my drone wars blog post -

As HMS Defiant says, this is potentially the end of public appearences of political figures

What we have seen from Ukraine though is that this is probably at least as scary for oppressors as it is for the targets of their oppression. A drone like this can be flown into the house/driveway of the head of the Three Letter Agency of choice just as easily as it can be flown into the property of the "insurrectionist"

One of the things we haven't seen yet (or at least not much) is drone - drone mesh networks and hierarchies that allows for semi-autonomous flocks to be controlled by a single person (or even given a destination and allows to fly there on their own). However we're getting there: Russia's Orlan 10 drone has some level of drone relaying commands and it looks like Ukraine's attacks on some places in Russia have consisted of a fairly large number of drones and presumably there's no direct control to all of the drones from different pilots.

When the PRC tries to invade Taiwan we're going to see a lot more of this on both sides as well as, I suspect, fleets of "smart mines" aka drone semi-submersibles

JohninMd.(HELP!) said...

I've seen a quad-copter drone, believe it's a S. Korean design, with an 8 round rotary magazine that takes 81MM mortar shells. Ukraine is getting them...

Michael said...

Amazing what DESIGNED FOR Combat smaller drones can do.

That makes it NOT a Commercial off the shelf civilian drone for the argumentized blogger.

When you can buy a commercial civilian drone from Walmart and carry much more than a release module and a hand grenade let me know the model number and price. Otherwise, it's a Designed for Warfare non-civilian drone.

I *think* Cold Fury has a prescription for ongoing Butthurt cream for the constantly annoyed. PRN use is recommended, I'm sure the nurses among us know about PRN.

Seems I recall some cyberpunk novels about non-battlefield uses for such nasty drones. Going to get NASTY out there.

Aesop said...

Still can't help scratching that itch, can you Michael?
Maybe try your own prescription.

Combat drones are what they are. They weren't invented in a vacuum of either knowledge, nor experience.

Ukraine has been taking COTS drones and doing exactly what you say won't matter, for a solid year and more. Turns out it matters.

Terrorists were doing that before 2022, and will continue to do so. Exactly as noted here, and over the strident (and predictably wrong) objections of The World's Foremost Expert. As ever.

So when ten or twenty of them each drop one of those inconsequential hand grenades on a stadium crowd, or someone puts a simple homemade thermite grenade or two on top of an LNG tank and inconsequentially blows hell out of most of a major port, or takes out some electrical transformers and dumps the power to 10 or 20 states, let's hope we all remember your prescience and perspicacity in ignoring the obvious potential.

"The peasants have no bread? Let them eat cake!"
"There isn't going to be any war; the King and the Kaiser are cousins!"
"A torpedo attack would never work in Pearl Harbor, because it's too shallow."
"Germany hasn't mounted a winter offensive in 200 years."
"Russia would be crazy to invade Afghanistan."
"Those stupid jihadi terrorist fanatics actually thought they could take out the World Trade Center."

History, especially military history, is replete with such boneheaded and short-sighted bad guesses.
Nothing to see here.

Kipling's verse about fool's fingers and fires comes to mind.

Steve Sky said...

US Switchblade 600 vs Russian Lancet 3

Drone vs Drone.

Who wins?