When it comes to military intelligence, tiny is where it’s at.
No one knows this better than AeroVironment Inc. (AV). The Monrovia-based maker of unmanned aircraft systems has produced a variety of small drones that are used extensively by U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the company’s newly unveiled Snipe Nano Quad has taken “small” to a new level. The unit is about the size of a cell phone, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in a multitude of high-tech features.
Weighing in at about 5 ounces, the four-rotor aircraft is equipped with an electro-optical/infrared system that allows it to take photos or live-streaming video both day or night. And its quiet electric motors make it difficult to detect, even when surrounding noise levels are low.
That can be invaluable in close-range military operations where U.S. troops don’t know what’s around the next corner — or at the top of the next hill.
In a video AV posted on YouTube, Snipe Program Manager Jon Ross explains it this way:
“An example for Snipe could be a squad who’s given a mission to do reconnaissance on a structure on the top of a hill,” Ross said. “Apparently, it was abandoned but reports indicate that it could be used by insurgents. So a squad is supposed to go up there and clear that facility. The problem is it’s at the top of a hill and there’s no way to approach it without possibly being seen if someone were inside. Snipe could give that squad a 360-degree view of the target from the rooftop, through any open windows or indoors to give them confidence as they approach.”
The Snipe can fly at speeds exceeding 20 mph and the tiny craft is capable of operating under challenging environmental conditions including winds of more than 15 mph with gusts of up to 20 mph. It has a range of about 3,280 feet and its rechargeable batteries can keep it aloft for 15 minutes at a time although the battery can easily be changed out for extended use.
The drone’s integrated UHF radio also provides for non-line-of-sight operation, and it has the ability to return to its operator automatically if it loses its radio link.
Snipe is controlled using an intuitive app on a standard touch-screen tablet.
“We got a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense for 30 of the systems,” said Steve Gitlin, AV’s vice president of corporate strategy. “We delivered 20 systems in April and we’ll deliver the other 10 later this month.”
AV produces a variety of tactical, unmanned drones, including the Puma AE, Raven and Wasp AE that can wirelessly transmit live video and other invaluable information directly to hand-held, ground control systems, empowering troops with real-time tactical reconnaissance, tracking and geographic data.
The Snipe draws upon technology advances achieved in the development of AV’s Nano Hummingbird, the world’s first unmanned aircraft capable of propulsion and control using two flapping wings.
Col. Courtney Cote, the U.S. Army’s project manager for unmanned aircraft systems, said the capability small unmanned systems provide are especially useful for soldiers.
In an Interview with National Defense Magazine, he said it’s “putting capability in the hands of individual soldiers as opposed to large assets that people have to gather data from then translate” into action.
All told, contracts with the Pentagon account for more than 85 percent of AV’s unmanned aircraft business. But later this year the Snipe will also be available for commercial by first responders, law enforcement agencies, search-and-rescue teams or virtually any other agency or business that could use the technology.
Gitlin cited an example.
“If there was a hazardous waste incident where a truck overturned the first responders could unpack the Snipe and send it over there to check things out before putting anyone in harm’s way,” he said. “It could also be used by companies that have large facilities, like refineries, chemical plants or even nuclear generating stations. They could be used for rapid awareness of a situation or for security applications.”