The Complex

This Backpack Drone Could be U.S. Troops' New Secret Weapon

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to the widespread and controversial use of drones that can find lurking insurgents and allow U.S. troops to hunt them down. But in addition to concerns about civilian casualties, unarmed surveillance drones are not always available quickly enough to assist U.S. troops when they need them. It's common for U.S. forces to wait at least 10 or 15 minutes for U.S. aircraft or drones to arrive after they're called -- crucial time when pinned down under gunfire.

Enter the backpack drone. Defense contractors have developed several variations, but a new unarmed robot that weighs one pound and relies on four helicopter rotors has quietly made it to U.S. troops in combat. It's called the InstantEye, and it allows ground troops to quickly get eyes in the sky to track the movement of nearby attackers through lightweight cameras. Looking something like a kitchen-counter appliance with propellers, InstantEye arrived in the hands of U.S. forces with little fanfare in recent months. Videos released by the company that makes it -- Physical Sciences Inc., of Andover, Mass. -- show an individual launching the quad-copter robot less than a minute after pulling it from a bag, sending it 400 feet overhead within 10 seconds, and tracking targets that are fleeing both on foot and in vehicles. The InstantEye also can be used at night and to map tunnels, the company says.


 

The company calls the result a micro-air vehicle, or MAV -- an apparent play on the unmanned aerial vehicle "UAV" acronym that troops have used to describe drones for years. In combat situations, the InstantEye will likely be carried in small field packs that can be strapped onto existing equipment. The company is still waiting for reports from the Department of Defense on how it has performed in war, said Richard Guiler, a company official.

"We know it has been used overseas, but we haven't gotten any after-action reports on it yet," Guiler said.

The drone was recently cited by a top Pentagon official overseeing science and technology projects as an "operational prototype" showing promise for U.S. forces. It was outfitted with a sophisticated electro-optical camera and an infrared light, giving troops an easily repaired surveillance option that costs less than $1,000, said Alan Shaffer, the acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, in a little-noticed March 26 congressional hearing before the House subcommittee on intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities. InstantEye provided surveillance footage that allowed U.S. troops to find insurgents waiting to ambush them, he added, without acknowledging where the mission occurred.

No other information about the mission was available, but the disclosure highlights the Pentagon's continued integration of drones into its arsenal, even as operations in Afghanistan dwindle. It also fits the profile for new experimental programs that stand a chance in an era where funding is tight. For a relatively small investment, the military is pushing industry to develop technology that create big payoffs without a big bill. Thus far, InstantEye has received about $1 million for research from a variety of Defense Department agencies, including the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md., and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's Rapid Reaction Technology Office, which was established in 2009 to quickly turn technological concepts into tools that troops can use.

Physical Sciences Inc. first got funding from the Pentagon for InstantEye in 2008, when it received a small business contract worth about $70,000 to study whether the movements of birds or insects could be integrated into aerial drones to make them more robust, Guiler said. Since at least 2004, several organizations that have received funding from the Pentagon have been designing drones based on behaviors and flying patterns of insects, according to a January 2014 story by Popular Science magazine.

"Dragonflies are amazing," Guiler said. "Many of these insects can handle 35 mile-per-hour winds. They can collide with other insects and still recover."

Physical Sciences eventually scrapped an idea to build a drone with a flapping-wing, finding it difficult to match the natural flight of a dragonfly. The research, however, led to the development of algorithms that allowed drones to recover more quickly after collisions, even when equipped with helicopter blades. Company officials received an additional $750,000 from the Pentagon's Small Business Innovative Research program in 2010, and used a four-rotor design that made it easy to control, even in windy skies, Guiler said.

Guiler said his company already has demonstrated the new backpack drone to other U.S. agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. First responders, he said, could use it to survey collapsed buildings, help find hostages in a building using thermal cameras, and help find their way when fighting fires.

Photo courtesy Physical Sciences Inc.

National Security

Robot Submarine Dives in Frustrating Hunt for Missing Airliner

The more than 20 countries involved in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are now pinning their hopes on a 17-foot robotic submarine that can scan and map the depths of the seafloor for possible wreckage. But it's no sure thing the sub will find the plane, which is believed to have crashed more than a month ago in the Indian Ocean.

The U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 will search about 15 square miles on Monday after being deployed, authorities said, but the search zone continues to include hundreds of miles and shift seemingly by the day. It's estimated it will take the submarine anywhere from six weeks to two months to scan the entire search area. The submarine's dive thousands of feet below the waves comes one week after several acoustic pings believed to be from the plane's electronic "black boxes" were detected. That narrowed the search area to several hundred miles, but no additional pings have been heard, and it is believed the batteries on the black box's transmitters may now be dead.

"I would caution you against raising hopes that the deployment of the autonomous underwater vehicle will result in the detection of the aircraft wreckage -- it may not," said Angus Houston, a retired senior officer with the Australian air force who is overseeing the multinational search. "However, this is the best lead we have and it must be pursued vigorously."

The submarine was scheduled to be deployed from an Australian ship, the ADV Ocean Shield, at about 5 p.m. in Perth, Australia. It is expected the search will test the limits of how deep the submarine can go -- up to 14,700 feet under the ocean, some 100 feet off the Indian Ocean floor. The hunt -- now in its 38th day -- is concentrated about 1,300 miles west of Perth. Flight 370 disappeared March 8 while traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It is believed to have diverted southwest toward the open waters of the Indian Ocean for unknown reasons and crashed, killing all on board.

U.S. Navy officials said each mission by the submarine will last about 24 hours. That includes two hours for it to descend, 16 hours of search time, and two hours for it to rise back to the surface. It then takes about four hours for operators to download the information the sub's sensors record.

The deployment of the Bluefin-21 to Australia was reported last month, but Monday marks the first time the submarine will be used. Search officials had sought to narrow the area they are probing further using a black box locator -- formally known in the Navy as the Towed Pinger Locator 25 -- that searches for noises transmitted by the plane's cockpit voice and flight data recorders. The devices emit electronic noises that can be heard from miles away with the right equipment, but have a battery life of about 30 days, and have since fallen silent.

Like the pinger locator, the submarine sent to Perth is operated by Phoenix International Holdings Inc., of Largo, Md., which collaborates with the Navy on many salvage operations. It scans the ocean's floor using a sonar tool known as a multibeam echosounder. It transmits acoustic noises, and produces a high-resolution, three-dimensional map based on how those noises bounce back.

The robot submarine is part of a vast arsenal of unmanned underwater vehicles the Pentagon has at its disposal, but U.S. defense officials have not announced that any additional equipment would be deployed. Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told Foreign Policy in a March 28 interview that the scope and initial uncertainty about where the plane crashed has complicated search efforts significantly

"I personally had dialogue with both the minister of defense and the chief of defense of Malaysia to make sure we were giving them the right support," Locklear said. "But, this has turned out to be the largest search-and-rescue and search-and-recovery effort probably in the history of mankind. It has been a hard thing, because the circumstances behind it were not clear from the beginning."

The black box locator will be set aside while the Bluefin-21 works, officials said. Aerial searches for debris continue, but may end soon. To date, the U.S. Navy has launched 32 maritime patrol missions in search of plane wreckage, covering 293 hours of flight time and 424,004 square nautical miles, Navy officials said. The service has used both P-3 Orion reconnaissance planes and its new model, the P-8 Poseidon.

U.S. Navy photo