Tethered drones: towards the Soldier 3.0

Across the world, the Military, Public Security, Humanitarian and Intelligence Agencies are being constantly deployed. The global scene is becoming more complex and not a day goes by without the media reporting the appearance of a climate disaster, an attack, a violent demonstration or a large-scale operation. To deal with these troubles, the industrial sectors, stimulated by government intelligence, police and defense agencies are constantly developing new tools that mark the entry of the world into the age of Soldier 2.0. Amongst these tools in the defence sector, tethered drones have established themselves as key capabilities

New technologies to provide essential tactical superiority.

Autonomous and Unmanned technology is constantly progressing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can perform tasks infinitely faster and on a much grander scale than human operators. This race to be the fastest, highest, strongest and most enduring continues, diversifies and is not about to stop.

Today, technological innovation is at the forefront of all defense and security programs. The display of innovation that was exhibited during the July 14 parade in Paris this year is a striking example.

Soldier 2.0 no longer goes into operation without an accompanying technological arsenal. From the sole of his combat boots to the satellites he is connected to, he operates equipment entirely dedicated to his survival and the success of the mission. In this eco-system, the connected 2.0 infantryman is equipped with a wide array of sensors which informs the command structure in real time. This has been fueled by the objective of these last decades of reducing friendly casualties as close to 0 as possible.

Due to their ease of integration, drones are a natural choice in this whole stack of technological capability. Survivable, agile, and with a wide range of sensors, they already provide valuable awareness for mission command. Modern combat is no longer conceivable without a video feed projected onto screens and scrutinized in real time (or subsequently) by an army of analysts.  This situational awareness, provided at minimal risk to human life, helps give military commanders tactical superiority through actionable intelligence.

Soldier 3.0: artificial intelligence, automation, and advanced persistence.

The upgrade from soldier 2.0 to soldier 3.0 will be accompanied by the advent and presence of robots in theatres of operations. Whether the latter are miniaturized or not, these autonomous devices will take a direct role in combat and will be a key enabler in future warfare. The intrinsic characteristics of these future protagonists are endurance, persistence, as well as a certain form of insensitivity to threat, fear and doubt. Exo skeletons, autonomous armored vehicles and nano drones the size of an insect are already in the order of battle.

Artificial Intelligence is more prevalent and associated with proven algorithms, will make today’s armies (those who can afford it) move from prehistory to a world worthy of the best science fiction scenarios. The endurance of this type of machine is well proven, each industrial sector has been using this type of technology for many years and on a large scale. From macro to micro to nano, companies are constantly looking to use these readily available tools.

Persistence is already proven, as long as energy is present and abundant, the robot accomplishes the mission for which it has been programmed. It should also be said that the more a machine works, the less it fails. Aeronautics and the world of UAVs benefit from this last precious asset. An aircraft or helicopter that flies every day sees its MTTR, MTBF, failure rate decrease and maintainability and machine availability increase.

Tethered Drones: Overcoming endurance limits.

Defense manufacturers have become interested in these innovative technologies. A study by Statista 2019 shows that the market value of professional drones is expected to increase from about $1.4 billion in 2015 to nearly $5.6 billion in 2020. However, the tactical UAV market is of little interest to major groups. This niche market currently belongs to the Startups and sales to the armed forces are in full swing.

Elistair is one of these startups and a key actor in the UAV sector in France. A pioneer and precursor in the field of tethered drones, this global leading company develops tethered stations and tethered drones based to overcome the endurance challenge. Most commercially available multirotor drones developed around Lithium Polymer batteries can only be used in cycles of 20 to 40 minutes. Moreover, the data links between the drone and the ground station are not necessarily secure as they are transmitted over Radio Frequency. In terms of employability, it would be interesting to count the positions and heights of interventions by multirotor type drones. It would be surprising to note that operators have difficulty deploying their multicopters a few hundred meters from their position. The majority prefer to leave this type of mission to fixed wing assets.

Multicopters are therefore mostly used as overwatch above the unit and are intended to provide information about what is happening on the other side of the hill or position. These small drones provide a 21st Century version of observation balloons from the early 19th Century. The latter are not necessarily suited to modern combat due to their conspicuous footprint or require a large logistical supply chain to support them. Today, the fight is much more instinctive, agile and sporadic. It increasingly requires an intelligence and analysis cycle on both friendly position for situational awareness and enemy positions for precision targeting.

Intelligence is essential and imperative before any operation. The drone is a tactical tool that can provide this information. It then becomes the eyes of the entire section in the field but also of the military hierarchy that controls the battlespace.

Orion Tethered UAS: A market leading capability?

The Orion developed by Elistair is one of these tools. Used by spearhead units engaged in expeditionary operations, it protects, informs and assists soldiers deployed in the field whilst linking these units back to higher authorities. Data and command and control of the aircraft are secured physically through the tether. The automated flight control software relieves the operator of most of the usual tasks of piloting and system monitoring providing him with greater mental capacity and reducing fatigue.

The efficiency of this system allows it to carry a range of capable payloads, outperforming smaller systems. Finally, its tethered technology ensures a discreet air presence for several hours by day and night. The on-board sensors can provide automatic target tracking, range finding, topographical analysis and facial recognition. All these automated and robotic tools reinforce the strategic position and give the infantryman the tactical advantage when he is “in contact with the enemy” or preparing to engage.

The tethered drone provides a critical capability to the modern soldier’s inventory by providing him with an organic surveillance asset. Since battery capacity and endurance is currently limited, power from the ground and the security command and control are the main drivers that motivated Elistair in the development of the Orion. This world-class UAV is a new way of contributing to the aeronautical metamorphosis that is taking place at a time when states are wondering whether the 5th generation fighter aircraft will be “unmanned” or “manned”.