Monster Machines: This Kamikaze Drone Makes The Skies Way Less Friendly

Nothing excavates a dug-in enemy infantry position like a little artillery fire, but that's not always available. Sure, you could squeeze off a Javelin round or two but at $100,000 per shot, that's a pricey and cumbersome option. Instead, the US military has developed an ingenious firefight drone that can spot, reconnoiter and prosecute targets within seconds of taking to the air.

The Switchblade UAV is a platoon-level ISR/attack drone developed by Aerovironment. Classified as a Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS), the Switchblade has been in limited deployment in Afghanistan since late 2012, acting as both a reconnaissance drone and guided munition for American soldiers.

The Switchblade measures 60cm long and weighs just under 3kg including its carrying case and tube launcher, making it svelte enough for a single soldier to carry. Its 10-minute loiter time detracts from the Switchblade's usefulness as a forward scout, but its colour camera and GPS locating is more than sufficient to identify and track human and vehicle-sized targets up to 10km away in the middle of a firefight.

The Switchblade is most useful, however, as a guided munition. It carries an explosive charge equivalent to a 40mm grenade, allowing it to target lightly armoured vehicles and embedded (or otherwise inaccessible) infantry positions, such as on rooftops or ridge lines. What's more, the Switchblade's electric propulsion system and small stature make is a sneaky little bastard, difficult to track and able to glide silently in a window before detonating.

Like Aerovironment's other UAVs — the RQ-11 Raven, RQ-20 Puma and Wasp — the Switchblade uses AV's Ground Control Station, which means that a squad can launch a Switchblade and Raven together, one for recon, the other for blowing stuff up. And if the situation changes after the Switchblade has been launched, the operator can cancel the strike and bring the UAV back for use later.

As Aerovironment's Steve Gitlin told Gannett's Marine Corps Times:

Think about it — pairing switchblade aerial munitions with a Raven, Wasp or Puma [mini-UAV] — a small team with those tools can know what is going on around them within about 15 klicks. Once they identify a threat, Switchblade lets them engage that threat immediately.

Even more promising is the Switchblade's precision. Instead of calling in an airstrike in a densely populated urban area to clear out dug-in enemy positions, which would surely result in numerous civilian casualties, forces can strike with pinpoint accuracy.

"Soldiers and leaders have readily embraced it as an invaluable tool," a US Army official told The Army Times. "The ability to wave off a target after launch is unique to this weapon over almost all other weapons. Operators can abort a mission if the situation changes after launch, engage a secondary target or safely destroy it without inflicting casualties or collateral damage to property."

The Switchblade is in limited deployment but certainly isn't the only such UAV. Textron's BattleHawk and Prioria Robotics' Maveric UAV's both aim to compete with the Switchblade for an upcoming Army development contract in 2016. [Defence Industry Daily - Army Times - AV Inc]

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