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.