On December 1, the Army announced that the 3rd Battalion, 75th Army Rangers are now using a specialized quadcopter built for military use. The Rangers are the second Army formation to use Skydio-made RQ-28A drones. The fact that these unmanned aerial vehicles are mostly used in training shows how important quadcopters have become in the modern battlefield.
When it comes to personal, commercial or hobby drones, the quadcopter is easily the most familiar form. It is easy to launch and land quadcopters with quadrotors to balance the weight and add redundancy. They also provide a stable platform for mounting a camera. Commercial quadcopters are so proficient and useful that they have actually been involved in military exercises for most of the decade.
Even more difficult is obtaining commercial quality quadcopters without the assumed risks of unsecured commercial communications. In particular, securing a military-ready quadcopter inexpensively has long been a goal of the Army.
“The Skydio RQ-28A is the Army’s first record quadcopter program. “A portable backpack Vertical Takeoff and Lift is a devastating new organic capability deployed at the platoon echelon in the form of a small drone,” the Army said in a publication. “It provides warriors with enhanced situational awareness and the ability to stay out of the way in urban and complex terrain, ensuring accurate reconnaissance and surveillance of relevant targets.”
In other words, drones allow soldiers to explore cities, forests and hills. Video from drones allows a platoon or group of up to 36 soldiers to see what’s going on around them, especially when obstructions like buildings or rocks can block their view. All these functions can largely be done with commercial quadcopters. And that’s what is usually done for armies without the big funding of the United States.
Off the shelf
After Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, quadcopters became part of static warfare at fixed positions in the Donbass region. In 2018, Ukrainian forces released a video showing them using a modified DJI Mavic quadcopter to drop grenades into the trenches held by separatists. Since the February 2022 invasion, soldiers in both the Ukrainian and Russian armies have used commercial quadcopters extensively. These drones allow soldiers to see the area they are fighting and report how they are moving in the terrain. Drones are also useful scouts for artillery and mortar fire, increasing the accuracy of existing weapons. As some Russian veterans returning from the front put it, fighting without quadcopters meant acting like “blind kittens.”
Over the years, other parts of the US Army and Pentagon have also explored the potential of off-the-shelf quadcopters. But in 2017 the Army took action to ban the use of DJI, and in 2018 the Department of Defense sent a memo suspending the military’s purchase of ready-made drones, citing cybersecurity concerns. These concerns arose primarily because the drones were made by DJI, China’s hobby drone giant, which could pose a national cybersecurity risk to the US military.
In an independent DJI-funded audit, concerns were mostly, if not completely dismissed, and drones are still entering military-adjacent testing. For example, it was DJI drones that Raytheon destroyed in field testing with a laser. The 2017 Navy assessment of DJI drones used as the basis for the Navy ban noted that the drones were also cheap enough to be considered expendable, and suggested mitigation strategies for cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
However, despite the progress made in adapting commercial drones, the Army has instead decided to continue developing a special military quadcopter that it currently uses.
The RQ-28A drone itself weighs less than 5 kilos, can be carried in a hard case and carried to the field in a backpack. Ultimately, the Army expects to field 480 UAVs in 2023 and deliver a total of 1,083 by the end of March 2025. These UAVs will be piloted using an existing government controller that works with existing UAVs.
In September, the Army used the RQ-28A for the first time with the Junior UAS Master Instructor School in Fort Benning, Georgia. This school is also trans troopers in other small drones like the hand-launched fixed-wing Raven scout. The school received 30 drone systems for RQ-28A training.
As The War Zone notes, the RQ-28A is likely based on Skydio’s X2D drone, which means they likely share similar specs, such as 35 minutes of flight time and the ability to communicate and send video up to 5.6 miles away.
In the field, these drones can mean the difference between what soldiers can see with their own eyes and detecting a vanishing ambush ahead of them. However, for the RQ-28A to truly meet the usefulness of the commercial drones it emulates, it will need to be expendable in combat. What makes battlefield quadcopters so useful is that they not only provide an overhead video of the battle, but can be abandoned when needed without real loss.