Pocket Change: A Nano Air Vehicle Proves Its Worth

The PD-100 Black Hornet fits onto a combat vest and is designed to look around corners without risking the user life or being detected by the enemy.

By George Jagels

As equipment improves, the average weight a soldier carries keeps rising. A 2009 Army study showed the average soldier humped 100 pounds of gear on patrol. And with budget freezes and force cuts, training specialists at the squad level is less and less feasible. Thus when one thinks of adding an unmanned aerial system (UAS) to a small unit, words like “unfeasible” and “unnecessary” might be the reaction. But what if that system took two days to learn and weighed 2.8 pounds, fitting into a soldier’s combat vest?

Prox Dynamics, a small UAS company based in Norway, builds just such a system. The PD-100 Personal Reconnaissance System, or Black Hornet, is a nano air vehicle (nano UAV) with many of the capabilities and potential of much larger, more complicated devices. In a field with ever more competition— witness the extraordinary expansion of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade group—the Black Hornet seems in a class of its own. With the little heard from Aerovironment’s Hummingbird since 2011, my research shows operationally useful nano UAVs are confined to the Black Hornet.

Founded in 2008 by Petter Muren, Prox Dynamics combined the professional expertise from the teleconferencing industry of its founder with his hobby and passion for building smaller and smaller air vehicles. Seeing a gap in UAS capabilities, Prox Dynamics took three years to develop the PD-100, and it is already turning heads.

What Makes a Nano UAV?

Each PD-100 Black Hornet weighs 16.5 grams, or .03 pounds. By comparison, most small quad rotors weigh at least a pound. The system also features a rotor span of less than four inches and a small controller. With two vehicles coming in a case, an operator can maintain aerial coverage of a location for an hour and half using by alternating the two vehicles and recharging batteries. Otherwise, standard flight time is approximately 20 minutes with a range of two kilometers. The system takes about two minutes to deploy.

An operator pilots the Black Hornet through what Stein Engen, Business Development North America at Prox Dynamics, calls an “intuitive, simple” controller made by the company. The operator hand launches the system, and can either fly it manually or by the use of waypoints. When the target location is reached, the helicopter can hover in place, allowing the operator to find the best position and angle to explore target details.

“One of the benefits to an ‘easy to use’ system like this is that you don’t need to be an expert pilot,” said Engen. “You train your existing team to integrate an additional capability without the need for additional operators.”

Layered onto this simplicity are an automatic return to base function, notifications for low battery, and ten digit grid in case of a crash. There is also inherent safety and durability in the PD-100. “If it crashes into something, it’s so light that it doesn’t create any impact energy,” Engen said. Yet this nano UAV can travel at a 5 meters per sec and has the ability to withstand winds of up to 20 knots.

You can launch the bird to look beyond the next corner, over the walls of a compound … and operate safely without disturbing the environment.

It might be easy to ridicule the Black Hornet as a toy—which accounts from the battlefield dispute—but the system provides real capabilities to small units. Few toys are night-vision capable and can beam full motion video and hi-definition still shots back to the control station.

Action in Afghanistan

In 2011, the British Ministry of Defence held a competition to field an urgent requirement: a personal UAV for its infantrymen in Afghanistan. After beating out about 20 competitors, Prox Dynamics won a $33.5 million dollar order for 160 units that deployed in 2012. During two years of service in southern Afghanistan, Engen said the Black Hornet has been well received.

Each PD-100 Black Hornet weighs 16.5 grams, or .03 pounds. The system also features a rotor span of less than four inches and a small controller. They can stay aloft for 20 minutes.

Each PD-100 Black Hornet weighs 16.5 grams, or .03 pounds. The system also features a rotor span of less than four inches and a small controller. They can stay aloft for 20 minutes.

“It has enabled British soldiers to look forward into risky areas instead of sending men into harm’s way,” he noted. “You can launch the bird to look beyond the next corner, over the walls of a compound … and operate safely without disturbing the environment.” There are now significant numbers in theater.

A low signature is a crucial aspect of the PD-100’s utility. It runs on a tiny electric motor that creates almost no sound. Depending on background noise and visual cover, Engen said, “You would have a hard time seeing and hearing it between 10 and 15 meters away.”

Showing interest in these capabilities, in October 2013 the U.S. Army agreed to a $2.5 million contract to test the system as part of its Rapid Innovation Fund.

Special Ops Ready

Such a lightweight system with a low signature, quick deployment capabilities, and no need to alert other aircraft of the its presence seems well suited to Special Operations Forces (SOF)—which have a better budget outlook than most of the U.S. military. Engen, who spent 16 years in the Norwegian Navy and did several combat tours in Afghanistan, sees a potential fit.

“There are several scenarios where the PDS-100 could be useful to SOF,” he said. These tasks include last-second target updates, entry point detection, detail confirmation, and identifying specific target individuals. “If you’re looking at preparing for a direct action-type operation, we know that any unusual activity beforehand is a warning for your opponents,” Engen said. “The Black Hornet can do close target reconnaissance; instead of sending people forward, you can use the UAV to cover all angles.”

Looking Ahead

Though the Black Hornet is under Norwegian export controls, making it most logical to sell to allied militaries, Prox Dynamics is looking at other markets. Engen claimed that law enforcement agencies, for example, could afford the system and find myriad uses for it. He added, “Our benefit is our small size. The helicopter is inherently safe even in an urban environment. You also don’t need a complex routine of gaining access to airspace.” The company is also looking at disaster relief organizations as potential customers.

Engen said that Prox Dynamics is constantly trying to enhance the PD-100 through software upgrades and hardware improvements. After much success operating in some of the harshest environments possible, Prox Dynamics set the bar quite high for itself.

Caption: The PD-100 can fit into a combat vest and is designed for soldiers to peek around the corner without notice.

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Unmanned Tech Solutions.