Drone designers challenged to fill gap for Aust Defence

Drones have done to modern warfare what muskets did to the age of the armoured knight. And Australia wants in on the action.

The Minister for Defence Industry, Mr Pat Conroy, has issued a $1.21 million “strategic capabilities accelerator challenge” inviting Australian industries to build a prototype drone aircraft and demonstrate how it can be rapidly produced on Australian production lines.

A total of 11 companies have responded, each signing contracts to deliver both a drone and a plan by April.

Uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) come in a multitude of sizes and roles. Some being used by the Houthi rebels in the Red Sea and on the battlefields of Ukraine are as large as a small car. Others are small commercial units – commonly used for purposes like wedding photography – adapted to carry grenades attached to a quick-release clamp.

The Department of Defence’s Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA) project is looking for something at the smaller end of the scale.

“Investments in developing small and smart uncrewed aerial systems will not only further a sovereign drone industry, creating highly skilled jobs, but ultimately will increase the operational effectiveness of our military.” Minister Conroy said in a statement issued by his office.

Adf drone
A Shadow Uncrewed Aerial System (UAS) drone is recovered by personnel from the 20th Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery (RAA), during Operation Resolute in the Kimberley Marine Park, WA. (Image Leut Chloe Reay, ADF)

“ASCA’s first Innovation Incubation Challenge will support some of our brightest minds in developing sovereign drone technology that can advance the future capabilities of the ADF.”

The small UAS systems that are the subject of this challenge are designed to be mobile, versatile, low-cost – and expendable.

More defence force drone developments

Their roles will be to provide near-real-time reconnaissance and observation of a battlefield. But they will be dancing among the treetops and rooflines – not soaring high above, like the Royal Australian Air Force’s three enormous Triton maritime surveillance craft (which come at a combined cost of some 7 billion dollars).

An article published in the Australian Defence Force’s research journal The Cove says numerous low-cost drones – including commercial off-the-shelf models – are needed to establish – and sustain – air superiority in a conflict.

“In the last two decades, the use, evolution, efficacy and accessibility of UAS technology has become increasingly more prevalent,” the unnamed author writes. “Kamikaze tactics, loitering munitions, 40mm grenade launcher UAS, and micro-drones have become commonplace, each requiring their own considerations for mitigation.”

They’re not just eyes in the sky and carriers of high explosives. They are also used for electronic warfare (jamming), data relay – and urgent deliveries.

“Further, the concept of swarming has created the capability to deliver an effect en masse or to decrease the (effectiveness) of countermeasures,” the article states.

Companies that have signed up to deliver the prototype small UAS and production plan include AMSL Aero, Autonomous Technology, Bask Aerospace, Boresight, Crystalaid Manufacture, DefendTex Military Products, Edinburgh Drone Company, Geodrones Australia, Ichor Autonomy, SYPAQ Systems and V-TOL Aerospace.

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