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New in 2017: Nano-drones for grunts

December 26, 2016 (Photo Credit: Jeff Schogol/Marine Corps Times)
Some Marine Corps squad leaders will be getting hand-held nano-drones in 2017, small devices that will offer once-unfathomable level of visibility over the battlefield.

The Marine Corps is on track to field sets of miniaturized quadcopters, small unmanned aircraft systems designed for infantry units across the force, according to Marine Corps Combat Development Command officials.

“The intent is for these systems to be in the hands of squad and platoon leaders for the ‘over the hill, around the corner’ type observation,” said Lt. Col. Noah Spataro, the unmanned aerial systems capabilities integration and requirements officer with MCCDC.

Each kit will include of a mix of two medium-sized drones, eight nano-sized devices, four micro-sized aircraft and eight commercial, off-the-shelf drones, he said.

Four Marine Expeditionary Units, four infantry battalions and one training unit will receive the packages by the end of 2017, with another three MEUs and a second training unit on tap for 2018.

In total, the Marine Corps will field 286 systems.

The tiny drones will be distributed down to the squad level, giving each its own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability rather than having to coordinate with a headquarters unit to access larger ISR systems.

On the battlefield, this can be an enormous boon: the ability to immediately peer over hilltops or concrete walls, around corners, through open doors or get an up-close-and-personal view of a parked vehicle that may be rigged with improvised explosives.

For example, a set of Prox Dynamics’ PD-100 Black Hornet – one of the drones the Corps is considering buying – has two small drones, weighs 2.8 pounds and can be worn on troops’ chests.

Each of the GPS-guided little birds can spend 20 to 25 minutes on station, providing day and night visual imagery up to a one-mile distance; while it flies, its counterpart can recharge to 90 percent over the same time frame.

“It provides live-stream video and still pictures in high-definition quality back to the operator,” Prox Dynamics’ general manager Arne Skjaerpe told Marine Corps Times.

“It was designed and developed to give the dismounted squad and the single operator their own ISR capability so that if something happens, if they have a need, they don’t have to ask higher authorities; they have their own indigenous capability,” he said.

Other types of drones the Corps is considering buying – including Datron/Aeryon’s SkyRanger, PSI’s InstantEye,  and DJI Phantoms – are similar to the Black Hornet, Spataro said.

The push to get the tiny eyes in the sky down to the ground level of the Corps comes from Commandant Gen. Robert Neller himself, who made it a key part of the Corps’ modernization strategy after becoming Commandant.

“At the end of next year, my goal is every deployed Marine infantry squad has got their own quadcopter,” Neller said at the Marine Corps League’s annual Modern Day Marine expo in September.

The Corps' Combat Development and Integration office issued an urgent universal need statement to fast-track the acquisition process.

Over the summer, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines tested out several small drones at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s Marine Air Ground Task Force Integrated Experiment 2016, a rigorous training event at the Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.

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