Monster Machines: The $1.9m Spy Plane That Fits In Your Hand

The lives of British soldiers in the Brigade Reconnaissance Force just got a little safer. Rather than having to undertake the dangerous task of checking for ambushes, investigating potential enemy positions themselves ("Go see if there are a bunch of guys with guns in that house"), they can now send this fist-sized spy 'copters to scout for danger ahead instead.

Dubbed the Black Hornet Nano Unmanned Aircraft System by its designer, Prox Dynamics of Norway, this micro UAV measures 10cm long and 2.5cm tall with a 10cm rotor span. It weighs just 16g, flies nearly silently, and is coloured to match and blend in with the grey mud buildings of Afghan villages. The Black Hornet's payload consists of a single tiny camera that delivers both full motion video and still images back to the recon soldier's hand-held terminal up to 1000m away. And while it may look like a child's toy, the Black Hornet has been ruggedised to handle the harsh, hot, and windy environments in which it operates.

It's powered by a small battery pack, which imparts a top speed of 10m/s and maximum flight time of about 25 minutes. That's plenty of time to sneak into enemy territory, capture some images, and return to base. In addition to operating under the direct control of a pilot, the Black Hornet can also be deployed autonomously using its on-board GPS receiver.

British troops have been using the Black Hornet in Afghanistan since August of 2012 and have been thoroughly impressed so far. As Major Adam Foden explained to UAS Vision:

Black Hornet is a game-changing piece of kit. Previously we would have sent soldiers forward to see if there were any enemy fighters hiding inside a set of buildings. Now we are deploying Black Hornet to look inside compounds and to clear a route through enemy-held spaces.It has worked very well and the pictures it delivers back to the monitor are really clear. And Black Hornet is so small and quiet that the locals can't see or hear it.

Sergeant Christopher Petherbridge, of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force in Afghanistan, added that the "Black Hornet is definitely adding value, especially considering the light weight nature of it. We used it to look for insurgent firing points and check out exposed areas of the ground before crossing which is a real asset. It is very easy to operate and offers amazing capability to the guys on the ground."

They've been so popular with troops that the UK Ministry of Defence has already placed a £20 million ($31 million) order for 160 units to complement the 300 or so other UAVs it currently operates in the region.

[UAS Vision 1, 2 - Prox Dynamics - BBC - MoD - Wikipedia]

Picture: MoD


    So what makes it 1.9Million? 31 Million / 160 = about $190 000 each.

      I'm glad someone can Math. I know $190K per device is ridiculously expensive, but not even the military would spend $1.9M on what is essentially a ruggedized version of a $30 kids toy. Would have thought that this ludicrous number would have at least prompted the author to double-check the sums.

        $1.9m in R&D perhaps?

          They are $190K which is somewhat reasonable considering the R&D costs would make up the majority of that with manufacturing and components only being a tinny sliver.
          The author just needs a calculator.

        ....and the fact its a spy helicopter, not a plane

        That may be expensive, but how many live could saved by not sending troops behind enemy lines for reconnaissance reasons.... 190k so a child doesn't lose a parent. Doesnt seem expensive to me.

    Seriously, You guys really need to check your stories. This is pathetic.

    I guess it depends on wether you're talking about just the Black Hornet itself, or the whole kit to fly it.

    $190k isn't too expensive when you consider the amount of kit in that tiny little thing. Have a look at the specs on their site

    Long flight times, 1km range, pan and tilt camera, and presumably very reliable components... sure it's still a lot of money, but that's an insane amount of stuff to have in a wee little spy helicopter

      Electronics cost is probably around $200-$300 if that. Possibly because of its size they are using an ASIC or maybe a FPGA to squeeze as much in to the small area.

      I'd say the high cost probably mainly comes from the IP and sophisticated software that it employs. But as another user stated above, if it saves lives then its probably worth every dollar. So long as the soldiers dont crash them into walls and loose them haha.

    The math youve worked out is proabbly a nice peice of evidence in relising that this war has been, for the most part, a money making scheme. Some R&D company got a hell of a pay packet for that baby!

    I suspect that someone hasn't moved the . enough places. That combined with R&D could quite easily account for the cost.

    Don't forget its not just the "Ruggedized version of a $30 toy" its also the console that the chopper transmits back to.

    Hi MoD, just letting you know of another device very similar to what your after.
    only $49USD

      MoD - Hi Oel, How much would it cost to add pan/tilt/zoom and higher res camera to your device? What would the battery life be with the extra weight? Can you use a system more secure and less able to be hacked than WiFi/Bluetooth to control the device and we would also need a control console more rugged and durable than an iPhone. You know something that won't smash the first time it sees the ground?

      Also will need more functionality than having to shout at it to control or have it follow a soldier around giving his location away all the time.

      Oh and by the way you will need to submit your device for exhaustive testing and hoop jumping, to prove the abilities and reliability and quiet operation of your upgraded device, in all the dusty and hostile environments that it or its operators may be asked to operate in, all at your own expense, before we would pay you a cent.

      We look forward to your updated quote.

    Armchair critics: "190K is too expensive. LOL"

    Dead soldier's family: "Sorry but we decided to use $30 toys rather than battlefield tested gear. It didn't work too well, we didn't spot the bad guys, and so they killed your family member. But that's OK because we pleased the armchair critics".

    $190k? For that much money I could buy a nice decent sports car with plenty R&D put into it. R&D my a**. I bet you some geek can make an equivalent for a quarter of that price. It's just charging whatever they want cause there is no competition.

    Did anyone notice that the Black Hornet is white?

      LOL! No I didn't!

      Maybe the black version is 1.9 mil?

    $1.9 mil is a bit steep (taking human lives out of the equation).
    All the tech necessary to make this is widely available. The trick is making it that small and writing the software for it.
    I suggest that the majority of the cost comes from testing, accreditation and licencing of patented technology. Also the first run of things like this is always more expensive.
    As they make more the price will come down.

    I'm not sure why everyone is hung up on the pan and tilt camera. That's actually the simplest part of the whole thing. Fitting all that tech into a tiny frame is no small feat.
    I wonder what frequency they use for video transmission. Us hobbyists are restricted by what we are allowed to use. I also wonder if the 25min flight time is the maximum possible or if that is including video transmission. That stuff can chew up a fair bit of power.

    um, guys, to make a small helicopter that flies in the open, will cost a bucket load of money in R&D. Why? My university was involved with researching these uavs and basically they need extremely complex software and automation so they don't get blown away and crash at the first hint of a breeze (last time I checked (around a year ago) they could barely fly across an air conditioner without getting blown away). Have you ever flown a small rc heli on a moderately windy day? 1.9 mil sound about right, actually kinda low.

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