Small drones are lethal battlefield weapons. Soldiers can launch them from behind cover, then locate, identify, and engage a target several miles away without ever exposing themselves to the enemy. The grenade-sized warhead can destroy a light vehicle, and because it can attack from any direction – including a vertical dive – a drone negates most cover.
So armies want them. And in the case of existing lethal drones such as the Chinese CL-901, Polish Warmate, and Turkish XQ-06, some armies already have them. What's more concerning are groups like ISIS making their own improvised drones, like the one which . It's for these reasons the U.S. Army must continually upgrade its drones to stay ahead of the game.
That's what's happening right now. Although the U.S. Army's Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS) will likely be a "program of record" in 2017, the companies vying for the contract are already making some big upgrades.
Because there hasn't been a U.S. military program for a portable killer drone, the Army instead relies on 4,000 (pictured above) from drone maker AeroVironment. Technically known as a "loitering munition" rather than a drone, the tube-launched Switchblade has performed well in Afghanistan and Syria and has been . Once locked on to a target, the Switchblade follows every attempt at evasion, diving in at speeds in excess of 90 mph in near silence.
AeroVironment have steadily upgraded the Switchblade over the years. Its newest version, Block 10C, comes with an improved digital data link, making the Switchblade harder to jam. With drone jamming devices becoming more common, this will help ensure that it reaches its target. The new data link also allows other drones to act as communication relays, extending the Switchblade's range. At the Army's annual meeting earlier this month, AeroVironment announced a new launcher that can deploy 20 Switchblades. That's a lot of instant air power.
When it comes to winning the LMAMS with the Army, the Switchblade's biggest competition comes from Lockheed Martin's Terminator and Textron's Battlehawk. Israeli company UVision has also teamed with Raytheon to offer a version of their Hero, already used by the IDF.
LMAMS will additionally benefit from Army research programs and private aerospace manufacturers. AMRDEC (Army Missile and Research, Development, and Engineering Command) has been working on six areas of LMAMS like warhead and image stabilization, which is available to all LMAMS contenders. Like all great gadget upgrades, AMRDEC has also improved the Switchblade's battery life, doubling its endurance to thirty minutes.
For the warhead itself, is using a technology called or LEO. This weapons tech has been used with other munitions and is built with computer modeling to optimize the size and number of shrapnel fragments.
Just as consumer drones are improve with every passing generation, like DJI's Mavic, military drones are likely to evolve just as fast—with the added pressure of evolving along side anti-drone countermeasures. The last thing you want to do is show up on the battlefield with last year's drone.