Here in the United States, the phrase “military drone” conjures images of advanced air frames like Predators, MQ-9 Reapers, and Global Hawks — but in battlefields all around the world, drones of all shapes, sizes, and prices are becoming increasingly prevalent and deadly.
Thanks to a boon in commercial drone manufacturing, it’s never been easier to field airborne reconnaissance, and as U.S. troops came to learn first-hand when fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, it doesn’t take much to weaponize these commercially available flying robots. In some cases, simply strapped some explosives to the side of an off the shelf drone can make for an extremely deadly, fast moving IED. With a little more time and effort, combining off the shelf drone technology with traditionally hand-held weapons systems can even make for airborne robotic weapons platforms — all without the millions of dollars and years in development seen in America’s advanced programs. These drones are, of course, not nearly as effective — but they also don’t need to be.
As an example, Russian ally Belarus unveiled their own new drone weapons platform last year: an RPG-26 combined what looks like off the shelf drone quad-copter components. The result looks like something out of Mad Max, and may not be all that effective in practical application, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a war fighter that would be willing to dismiss the rocket propelled grenade launcher zooming over the berm and sighting in on them in the heat of the moment.
The RPG-26 is a single shot, disposable Soviet era anti-tank weapon that carries a 72.5 millimeter diameter shaped charge designed specifically to penetrate up to 440 millimeters of armor. The rocket propelled grenade fired from the RPG-26 is said to be able to penetrate one meter of reinforced concrete or one and a half meters of brick. Despite those impressive capabilities, this platform would not be able to disable a U.S. military M1 Abrams battle tank (at least, head on) but would still be capable of doing some serious damage at a tank’s flank or to other, less armored vehicles like a Humvee, Bradley, or Stryker.
The thing is, that’s assuming it could hit anything at all. The drone may be able to get airborne, but without an extremely accurate and reliable targeting apparatus, this drone provides little more than the novelty of a flying grenade launcher, and thanks to its single shot capability, the operator wouldn’t even have the benefit of trying again once he missed.
In a video that surfaced last summer, the drone can be seen taking off from the ground, gains some altitude and fires almost immediately, offering little indication of the drone’s flight time capabilities. Based on the weight of the RPG-26 (around 6.5 pounds), it’s likely that the drone wouldn’t be good for much more than just that — getting airborne and firing; any more battery life would require more weight. The video does not show the drone’s target nor does it show the RPG’s impact, suggesting that the targeting apparatus may not be worked out quite yet… if it exists at all.
Featured image: Screenshot from Youtube video of the single-shot Belarusian RPD drone. | Youtube, created by the author.