Small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) provide immediate situational intelligence to ground forces, and to remote command. The very order of this statement reveals the roles and applications to which these systems are uniquely suited.

In contrast to large unmanned aerial systems, sUAS shorten and reverse the data chain – they place advanced ISR capabilities directly in the hands of the soldier, squad, or platoon who needs it most, while securely networked with C4ISR. Early generations of sUAS substantially changed the modern soldier. What comes next is poised to transform modern armed forces.

Fit for purpose
For soldiers gathering forward ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) or building situational awareness, small unmanned aerial systems have placed immediate information-gathering tools in their backpack, and direct control at their fingertips. In remote locations, and with little or no support infrastructure, sUAS can be quickly transported, launched, operated and recovered in close proximity to the operational theater. For covert missions, sUAS can also be deployed without detection. sUAS can similarly provide immediate forward support to protect convoys or operating bases, flying in advance of mobile assets or around fixed assets to identify potential threats.

Fixed-wing airframes represented the majority of early deployments of sUAS en masse. As armed forces review results and lessons from these initial forays, however, VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) sUAS are gaining more attention than ever before. VTOL systems offer similar benefits of helicopters when compared to fixed wing aircraft, including ease of launch and recovery, mission flexibility, and the ability to hover and maintain constant eyes-on-target. Persistent observation is challenging for fixed-wing systems as they must constantly move forward to remain airborne, requiring circular flight paths that create intervals in which target observation is lost and must be re-established.

Beyond recognized data gathering requirements, it is truly time for users to expect more from sUAS. A “man-packable” system should not require sharing gear across multiple soldiers, and instead should mean the ability for soldiers to carry a system in addition to their standard gear. That system should not deploy quickly, but immediately, with no assembly, and no heavy peripheral equipment such as launchers/retrievers or ground control antenna towers.

Users should expect sUAS to perform reliably in high winds, extreme weather conditions, and in confined environments, even operating when it is not safe to fly larger UAS or manned aircraft. Training should be minimal – and similarly requirements for flight hours to maintain operator currency and proficiency. sUAS should intelligently and autonomously handle most of the actual work of flying and allow operators to focus on the task-at-hand, and furthermore should actively assist operators in successfully completing their mission from launch to safe recovery.

Payload capabilities must be flexible for mission objectives but also integrated for consistent experience – all imagery should automatically include georeference and other metadata. Networking should set up automatically, and should be robust, secure, and extensible. Beyond the aerial vehicle, sUAS should truly be systems and provide complete end-to-end solutions, easily passing collected data into networks or advanced processing tools.

More capability in a backpack
A key enabler for sUAS continues to be the miniaturization of sensors, providing capabilities of larger terrestrial or aerial platforms in sufficiently reduced scale to maintain useful endurance and flight performance. Optical sensors, primarily colour and infrared, have simultaneously reduced in size while advancing in performance. So much have these form factors improved that it is now common to combine color (EO) and infrared (IR) sensors in single sUAS payloads (EO/IR). Employed correctly, EO/IR payloads can simultaneously store and transmit both EO and IR still images or streaming video. These sensor groupings add new mission capabilities and flexibility, providing more information in a single flight – more than twice as much when data from two sensors is combined into novel forms of information. Optical sensors are also seeing enhanced performance in areas such as low-light illumination by pairing sensors with light sources, or with light intensifiers for which additional light sources are not required.

Sensor miniaturization in commercial applications such as high definition optical sensors from smartphones, and gas micro-sensors from industrial use, is now benefiting military customers. This is a strong countercurrent against the standard technology transfer flow. The benefits of commercial technology are being realized in many other areas, providing previously unavailable technology at comparatively low costs.

Consider, for example, the types of imagery processing and analysis tasks which are currently backhauled to reach sufficient processing horsepower. It is still vital to bring this information, such as live FMV (full motion video) or advanced 3D environment modeling, to remote command centers. However, many tasks can now be brought forward to advanced forces by leveraging low-footprint commercial software. For example, with a rugged field laptop and the appropriate software, a set of images gathered by sUAS over a target of interest can very quickly be processed into accurately georeferenced 2D image mosaics and detailed 3D models. Direct access to enhanced information on the ground greatly enhances forward reconnaissance and tactical planning.

Faster, better, smarter
Continued systems evolution will naturally bring successive sUAS generations that fly faster, further, and longer than previously possible, with still higher flight performance. Future systems should deliver much more, however, including new payloads, more autonomous capability, and the ability for still more plug-and-play systems integration.

Beyond optical sensors, there is a growing interest in other sensor types, groupings, and independent payload systems approaching viable form factors for “backpack-able” sUAS. These include a range of chemical, radiation, gas, and other particulate sensors for scenarios such as CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosive), acoustic sensors to identify direction of attack, multi- and hyper-spectral imagers, signal interception, meshed communications relays, and more. The availability of these new payloads will make possible new applications and mission profiles, and aerial vehicle designs should allow for ongoing and flexible integration of new payloads not yet commercialized.

Autonomous system intelligence will also continue to advance at a significant pace. For software-engineered platforms, there is still significant opportunity to automate additional high-value tasks and even missions, and further improve human factors in user-system interaction. Modern sUAS must be upgradeable platforms with sufficient onboard processing capability and a robust infrastructure to take advantage of these advancements.

As military forces continue to replace legacy analog equipment with digital, many opportunities will be unlocked in network integration. Unmanned aerial systems can be a critical data source to many networked systems and, even more powerfully, provide multiple data sources which can be combined to produce novel information greater than the sum of the parts.

Moreover, sUAS could be a network endpoint by accessing and acting on information from the network, or be brought within a mesh network. Only fully digital sUAS will be ready to leverage these integration opportunities.


Ian McDonald is vice president, product and marketing at Aeryon Labs, responsible for product management, strategic partnerships, and integrated marketing. He has international experience in commercializing new technology and developing new markets.