UK to buy nano drones as researchers look for drone ‘Holy Grail’

The UK MoD has issued a pre ‘invitation to tender’ notice to the military industry for a new ‘nano’ drone to be used in Afghanistan.  The document, revealed by Flight Global and the Guardian calls for a drone of no more 7oz which is capable of flying for between 20 and 40 minutes at a range of 1km.   The contract, estimated to be worth between £10 and £20m, states  “The drones should be available “off the shelf”, powered by a rotary wing, weigh less than 1.7kg,and able to operate in “typical conditions found in Afghanistan and the UK”.

The news comes just days after US company AeroVironment publicly demonstrated its ‘Nano Hummingbird’ drone, which  has a 6.5-inch wing span weighs less than an AA battery and can fly at speeds of up to 11 mph. (see video below)

The huge growth in the use of drones is attracting much research attention both within industry and universities. The BBC has recently reported a new post-graduate course in drone design at Southampton University (thanks CS) while Raytheon has recently filed patents in relation to drones being refueled autonomously by other drones in order to achieve “drones that stay airborne forever.”  However the “Holy Grail” of drone research, as Raytheon puts it, is to enable unmanned drones to fly in same airspace as piloted and civil aircraft.  To this end research continues into avoidance detection systems.

Am I being a Luddite to be concerned about so much research energy, talent and resources being focused on drones?  The military and the military industry will always, of course, talk about the benefits to civil society of military research and how ‘spin-offs’ create civilian jobs. Witness the Pentagon’s recent promotion of the idea that their drones can prevent genocide and no doubt drones can be useful in all sorts of civil applications, not least relief and rescue work. Yet the focus of drone research remains on enabling unmanned systems to be increasingly lethal and to support military operations.    

Those involved in research on drones and unmanned systems need to consider how their work could be used in practice.  We highly recommend Scientists for Global Responsibility and in particular their recent report  Behind Closed Doors.