BlogMay 17, 2024

The Future of Warfare: How Drones Are Shaping Combat

May 17, 2024
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Drones have played a key role in defense and security operations for some time now, but it’s only over the last few years – and particularly with the devastating conflict in Ukraine – that the true combat potential for drones has been realized. The use of drones in combat is now the norm, and combined with advanced computers and artificial intelligence, is creating a capability that will give forces a superior advantage on the future battlefield.

Drones – or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), as they are known by the military – have become ubiquitous in most armed forces around the world. Across all domains, drones employ a range of sensors and have been used traditionally in a passive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity, collecting vital information on enemy activity and feeding the intelligence cycle.

The advantages of military UAS – which come in a range of sizes – over traditional manned platforms are well documented, but to summarize, these include:

  • Removing personnel from danger
  • Longer platform endurance
  • Reduced platform costs
  • Larger fleets of smaller platforms
  • Reduced risk of escalation if shot down

As well as ISR functions, drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper have also been able to close the OODA loop by carrying out lethal strikes using onboard precision-guided missiles. However, these were largely the preserve of advanced militaries, until the rise of small, weaponized drones.

Explore Kite Strike II: Revolutionizing Drone Technology

The growing use of weaponized drones

The last decade has seen a surge in the use of small and inexpensive UAS – including quadcopters and fixed-wing examples – that can carry out lethal attacks. The first notable example of this was during the fight against Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq in the mid-2010s.

IS pioneered the use of cheap off-the-shelf quadcopters that could drop hand grenades, as well as hobby RC planes that could carry explosives. While primitive, the armed drones were effective in stopping advancing forces that were attempting to retake IS-controlled cities such as Mosul.

The war in Ukraine has only served to accelerate and mature the technology and tactics of drone warfare, with much of this conflict now characterized by the use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drones for both surveillance and lethal strikes. In early 2024, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation stated that Ukrainian drones had destroyed or damaged 73 tanks, 10 howitzers, and 369 Russian personnel, all in just one week.

Ukrainian forces have pioneered the use of cheap first-person-view (FPV) drones – initially developed for recreational activities such as filmmaking and drone racing – that are configured with explosives and flown directly into a target using skilled operators. A typical mission could see one drone deployed by an ISR team, which then passes off targeting data to a separate FPV team to complete the ‘kill chain’.

Drones are now highly integrated into Ukraine’s force structure with the Ukrainian President announcing in February a new strategic branch of the armed forces known as Unmanned Systems Forces.

Future technology developments for drones – the AI revolution

As computer processing advances further and artificial intelligence (AI) is deployed on more systems at the edge, including those pioneered by Systel, then the autonomous capabilities of drones will only advance further. One example of how autonomy and AI will underpin new drone tactics is swarming, where multiple UAS will work collaboratively together to perform a mission with limited human input.

A flavor of the devastating impact of swarming drone attacks has already been seen with Russia’s bombardment of civilians in Ukraine, as well as Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and the organization’s use of Iranian-made loitering munitions on naval and merchant shipping. These attacks show how multiple relatively cheap drones can overwhelm air defenses and quickly deplete defensive ammunition stocks.

In the future, swarming drone attacks will be more intelligent and integrate various electronic warfare countermeasures that spoof and degrade air defense systems further.

The use of AI will also allow drones to be more survivable in degraded environments and, like swarming, carry out missions with limited human inputs. Currently, many UAS still rely on control inputs from a human operator and a ground control station – particularly the cheap commercial FPV drones used in Ukraine – which is challenging in environments where jamming exists and signals can be blocked.

An answer to this has been to leverage AI – including machine vision – to aid with autonomous navigation and target selection, especially in the terminal attack phase. This has been seen with Ukraine’s attacks on Russian infrastructure using long-range drones, as well as a new-generation of FPV drone that features an automated terminal attack phase that overcomes the jamming of control and data links.

US Army investments in the new drone era 

This new reality of conflict has not gone unnoticed by the US military, including the US Army, which announced this year that it would “rebalance” its aviation modernization investments to include the phasing out of drone systems that are not survivable in modern conflicts, including the Shadow and Raven UAS.

The Army has said that it will increase investments in “cutting-edge, effective, capable and survivable” unmanned aerial reconnaissance capabilities, as well as procurement of commercial UAS. “We are learning from the battlefield – especially in Ukraine – that aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed,” said the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Randy George.

He added: “Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching, and more inexpensive than ever before.”

As part of its rebalance, the Army will accelerate efforts on the Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (FTUAS), a program that Systel is playing a key role in, that will give Army Brigade Combat Teams a rapidly deployable ISR capability. Another key program for the US Army is Launched Effects (LE), which will see small UAS launched from Black Hawk helicopters to provide key data for commanders during large-scale combat operations.

Modern rugged computers for drone warfare

As drones incorporate more intelligent features, particularly AI-enabled ISR and targeting capabilities, the requirement for more powerful edge computing will grow. These computers will have to be rugged enough to withstand the harsh environments experienced by UAVs, as well as reliable enough to survive the high tempo of major combat operations. This includes protection from environmental factors (covered as part of the US DoD’s MIL-STD-810 standard), as well as electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) considerations (covered as part of MIL-STD-461G).

In addition to this, computers will have to be designed around the limited size, weight and power (SWaP) available on UAS platforms, which has been an engineering challenge for drone manufacturers ever since their inception. Advanced AI processing has traditionally required larger processors and more power, although this has been difficult to achieve on power-constrained platforms such as UAS, where space is also extremely tight.

Systel has been working on specialist rugged computers for UAS – including working alongside a number of leading drone manufacturers – for a number of years now, and has become a leading industry expert on ultra-lightweight, small-form factor rugged computers that have high processing capabilities.

One such example is Sparrow-Strike – introduced in 2023 – which is already being trialled on UAS platforms and is a gamechanger for drone platforms of the future. By incorporating the NVIDIA Jetson Orin NX edge AI system on module (SOM), the Sparrow-Strike is capable of next-generation autonomous and uncrewed mission-critical applications, and can be configured according to the end users’ unique requirements in a fast-changing security environment.

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