US firm unveils tiny handheld drone for soldiers

A tiny military spy drone that can be worn on a soldier’s clothing and launched from the palm of the hand has been unveiled by engineers in the US.

Soldiers preparing to launch Aerovironment’s new Snipe drone

Developed by unmanned air systems (UAS) specialist Aerovironment, the so-called Snipe quadcopter, which weighs 140g, has been developed specifically for close-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

According to a statement issued by the firm, 20 of the drones were delivered to the US government in April.

Powered by rechargeable batteries that give it around 15 minutes of flight time, the tiny device is claimed to be capable of flight speeds of more than 20mph and has a range of over 1km.

What’s more, thanks to its quiet electric motors, it’s said to be difficult to detect in operating environments with even minimal ambient noise.

“Snipe’s tiny size belies its impressive capabilities,” said Kirk Flittie, AeroVironment vice president and general manager of its Unmanned Aircraft Systems business segment. “It is quick, quiet, fast, durable and packed with advanced features critical to helping our customers succeed in close-range missions.”

The aircraft is equipped with electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR), low-light-capable and long-wave infrared (LWIR) sensors and can relay high-resolution images and record real-time video both day and night.

Snipe is based on advances made during the development of Aerovironment’s Hummingbird drone

Controlled using an app on a standard touch screen controller, Snipe is claimed to be capable of operating under challenging environmental conditions including wind gusts of up to 20mph. An integrated UHF radio allows non-line-of-sight operation, and the drone is able to return to its operator automatically if it loses its radio link.

The technology is based on advances made by the company in the development of the Nano Hummingbird, an experimental flapping wing drone that it developed as part of a DARPA project.

So-called Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) have been a major area of development in the defence sector for a number of years.

Soldier Operating Black Hornet Nano UAV Helicopter
A British soldier launching the Black Hornet Nano Unmanned Air Vehicle

The Black Hornet, a 15g helicopter, developed by Norwegian firm Prox Dynamics — which began life developing devices for the remote-control plane market — was adopted by British forces following an urgent 2011 MoD call for a “Nano UAS” for use in Afghanistan. In the meantime a number of groups around the world – including UK firm Animal Dynamics – are continuing to explore the development of next-generation drones that mimic the flapping wing flight of an insect.