When a Hobby Drone Becomes a Military Sniper
There’s a new kind of killer drone. Called TIKAD, it isn’t like any lethal drones you’re seen before. Because unlike the effective-yet-cumbersome MQ-9 Reapers, these multicopters can carry a sniper rifle, a grenade launcher, or a machine gun—the inevitable convergence of hobby drones and military weapons.
Big drones like the Reaper and its predecessor, the Predator, are controlled from thousands of miles away, orbit at five or ten thousand feet, and watch everything happening below. They strike with laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, which are precise but hardly surgical, causing collateral damage and loss of life. Urban combat requires something with more finesse, something that can take out a sniper without destroying a building and doesn’t require an entire team to do it.
NEW DRONE, OLD IDEA
Although this new drone, purchased by Israel, could be the first of its kind used in the field, the idea of arming small drones has been around for a few years. Back in 2012, the U.S. Navy experimented with arming quadcopters with shotguns as counter-sniper weapons but eventually halted the project. Meanwhile, the U.S. military fielded the SwitchBlade, a portable, tube-launched kamikaze drone with a small explosive warhead and a range of several miles.
But it’s not just the U.S. military that has been exploring the combat use of consumer drones. ISIS graduated from homemade kamikaze drones in 2015 to swarms of quadcopter bombers in the battle for Mosul this year. These repurposed consumer drones could hit vehicles several hundred feet below with bombs adapted from 40mm grenades and could only be stopped by sophisticated U.S. jammers.
Bomber drones are relatively straightforward, but sniper drones pose a tougher engineering challenge. Small quadcopters, like most hobby drones, cannot even lift a rifle, but now there are a wide range of heavy-duty multicopters which can carry forty pounds or more—that’s more than enough for a rifle, but the recoil remains a problem.
Duke Robotics’ stablizing gimbal mounting. Six arms between the weapon and the drone move to compensate for recoil.
It can be done–as an infamous 2015 YouTube video of a homemade pistol-packing quadcopter showed—but the resulting recoil is enough to shove a small drone some distance, ruining any chance of a second shot.
Duke Robotics Inc., creators of the TIKAD, say it has “a unique suppression firing and stabilization solution.” The weapon is mounted on a robotic gimbal which turns in real time, keeping it pointed in the right direction. The recoil is distributed through flexible plates to minimize the overall effect—minimizing, but not eliminating, recoil. There is no escaping equal and opposite reaction, and the TIKAD’s effectiveness as a gunnery platform remains unproven.
Another approach could be to use a recoilless weapon, like a rocket launcher. Rather than large-caliber cannon, helicopters are armed with rocket pods, which can throw a lot of explosive rapidly. The rocket’s exhaust takes all the backward momentum, so there is no recoil affecting the aircraft.
But recoilless weapons can be made much smaller than a helicopter’s rocket pod. In the 1960s, the Gyrojet pistol offered the hitting power of a .45 with no recoil by firing 13mm-caliber, bullet-sized rockets. A handful were used in Vietnam (and appeared in a James Bond movie) but were too inaccurate. A modern version could be far more accurate, according to Mel Carpenter, author of An Introduction to MBA Gyrojets and Other Ordnance.
“Not being able to consistently drill four tapered angled holes at exactly the same angle was the basic reason for the Gyrojet’s lack of accuracy,” says Carpenter. “Today, fifty years later, [CNC] machines could easily solve that problem.”
With these machines, Carpenter says most of the Gryojet pistols weaknesses could be fixed, creating a weapon fit for this new era of drones.
“The very first prototype Gyrojet pistols were full auto and had an extremely high rate of fire, Carpenter says. “Mounted on a drone, a very fast burst of fire with almost zero recoil might be attractive.”
Duke already claims some success with rifle-armed multicopters. According to DefenseOne, in 2015 the company supplied Israeli Special Forces with a sniper rifle mounted on a consumer drone and was successfully used in action.
Duke’s slogan is “no boots on the ground,” and these drones do represent a new tactical capability, a future where armed drones can do a human soldier’s job. We have already seen this idea in a ground robot from Israel–the diminutive Glock-packing Dogo–but flying drones are even more mobile. They can easily cross any terrain, hover over the rooftops for a better view, or peer through windows on upper stories.
And not everybody is happy with these recent developments. With the increasing remoteness and automation of warfare, campaign groups are protesting against the unethical use of robotics.
Professor Noel Sharkey, chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control told Popular Mechanics that simply because TIKAD appears to be more of a precision weapon does not mean the end to civilian casualties, especially when they are used in places which are not official conflict zones.
“We have witnessed many mishaps,” says Sharkey. “Some say that it is no different from sending in soldiers, but that requires a lot of planning and resources and risks soldiers’ lives. That is an inhibitor which is relaxed with drones. The TIKAD increases that flexibility and is much cheaper and so places less restrictions on strikes.”
“IT WON’T BE LONG BEFORE EVERYONE HAS COPIES.”
That will mean more strikes in places which commanders previously thought too risky—and more ‘collateral damage’ if a bullet goes astray. While TIKAD may initially be used to keep friendly troops out of danger, they are likely to proliferate rapidly.
“It won’t be long before everyone has copies,” says Sharkey. “Some of these will be a lot less stable and less precise. We have already seen ISIS employ small commercial drones for strikes with explosives.”
Bonnie Docherty, a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School and Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, is concerned that the TIKAD represents a step towards autonomous weapons which choose their own targets without any human understanding of the legal, moral, or social context. The UN is moving toward an agreement to limit such weapons, but at its own pace.
“International law is slow,” says Docherty. “Technology sometimes outpaces it.”
Development like TIKAD are alarming because, though it is controlled remotely by an operator, an autonomous version may be no more than a software upgrade away.
“Any development in this area needs to be monitored closely,” says Docherty. “We want to stop it before the genie is out of the bottle.”
Whatever form they take, these weaponized drones will be much more ubiquitous than their bigger brothers. Terrorist groups like ISIS have already proved that this idea is anything but exclusive, and more importantly, unavoidable.
These lethal drones aren’t coming soon—they’re already here.