Drone 40, produced by Melbourne-based defense technology firm DefendTex, is a drone whose niche involves a 40mm grenade launcher.
Drone 40 was created as a solution to the problem of range; specifically, the problem of a range disparity between the infantry weapons carried by Australian infantry, which are accurate to about 500 meters, and the AK-74s carried by adversaries, which can reach out to 800 meters (though the accuracy at that range is disputed). Even if the fire is just suppressing fire, Australia was looking for a way to let its infantry fight back, but not one that required changing the gun or adding a lot more weight to what soldiers were already carrying.
“The only thing that we had in the infantry kit with any utility was a 40 millimeter grenade launcher,” which led to the design of the Drone 40, said DefendTex CEO Travis Reddy. Rather than overtaxing the launcher with a medium-velocity round that could travel the distance needed, the launcher would instead give a boost to a drone-borne munition that would then fly under its own power the rest of the way to the target.
The overall appearance of the Drone 40 is that of an oversized bullet. Four limbs extend from the cylindrical body, with rotors attached. In flight, it gives the appearance of a rocket traveling at perpendicular angles, the munition suspended below the rotors like a Sword of Damocles. It is, technically, a quadcopter.
Drone 40 is a loitering munition, for a very short definition of loiter. When carrying a 110 gram payload, it can fly for about 12 minutes. The person commanding the Drone 40 can remotely disarm the munition, letting the drone land inert for later recovery. When not carrying an anti-personnel or anti-tank munition as payload, it can be outfitted with a sensor. For an infantry unit that wants to scout first, fire later, the sensor module can provide early information, then be swapped out with a deadly payload. Beyond Australia, the company envisions providing the Drone 40 to the Five Eyes militaries.
The drone’s video streaming can transmit 10 km over direct line of sight. Drone 40 can also record video and retransmit it when it comes within range, or it can take still images. With the radio frequency relayed by another aerial system, that range can be expanded. Using GPS, the drone can follow a waypoint plotted course to a target, or it can use its own synthetic aperture radar to identify and track a target. Reddy says it can distinguish the radar profile of, say, a T-72 tank, and then follow it autonomously.
Drone 40 is designed to fly with minimal human involvement. The unit’s development was largely funded in collaboration with Autonomous Systems Collaborative Research by the Australian government, and the drone can work collaboratives, with multiple Drone 40s flying together and operating off the sensor data from a single ISR drone in the swarm. Most of the flying, identifying and tracking of targets is done autonomously; however, human control remains an essential part of the machine’s operation.