Speaking to APDR at Army’s Innovation Day on October 25, Major General Kath Toohey, Head of Land Capability, explained that with technology evolving rapidly the required skill level of personnel was also increasing. She nominated three areas of innovation that are of particular interest to Army at the moment: 1) robotic and uninhabited solutions, including aerial systems; 2) signature reduction technologies for individuals and vehicles; and 3) increasingly the effectiveness of personal networking, taking advantage of the range of sensors that soldiers now routinely carry on them into the field.
Military organisations tend to be fairly conservative in nature and for the last five years to increase exposure to new and innovative technologies, Army has been running an annual event in Canberra that gives companies the opportunity to demonstrate their products and hopefully be selected for further development. Many apply, but few are chosen – typically four will succeed out of the 24 shortlisted proposals from 19 companies under consideration this year.
Companies not only have the opportunity to demonstrate their products, they also separately have the chance to give a three to five minute sales pitch to an Army audience. And if that doesn’t seem like much, remember the rule of one of the world’s most successful investors, Warren Buffet, who says that if someone cannot explain the opportunity in less than 60 seconds, then he is not interested.
While only in place for a short time, the Innovation Days have already had several notable successes, including programmable moving targets to improve combat shooting training that were demonstrated in 2016. The technology can also be used to provide target training against simulated vehicles. However, probably the idea that has had the most impact on Army is the rapid adoption of the Black Hornet Nano UAS, which carries a tiny thermal camera, can hover and is so small and light that it flies from a soldier’s hand. First demonstrated in 2014, it is proving to be a game changer, with General Toohey saying:
“The Black Hornet Nano UAS is an excellent example of the type of products which add significant future capability. It has now been rolled out to soldiers in Army’s 6th Brigade for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks (ISR).”
In 2017 the company received a contract under the Army’s minor programs budget to start rolling out the capability down to platoon level. Other technologies of interest are likely to be incorporated into major projects – and obvious one being the multi-phased LAND 125.
The feedback about the Black Hornet has been very encouraging: “all of the soldiers love it – especially the young ones who enjoy having a piece of contemporary high technology in their hands.” The life-saving benefits on the battlefield are considerable, so that a scout rather than approaching a hostile position can instead deploy the tiny UAS and observe from a safe distance. Scouts will be able to observe larger areas faster than ever before and with far less chance that they will be detected. Also the thermal video image is typically transmitted from an elevated view, revealing more detail than might be obtained if the soldier is observing from the ground.
During Exercise Hamel in June, a corporal went forward with his Black Hornet accompanied by one other soldier for protection. In a single 30 minute sortie, it detected six fully dug in armoured vehicles to 10 figure grid reference accuracy – an astonishing feat, meaning that in theory two soldiers could find, track, localise and possibly engage with kinetic effects half a tank squadron. It is therefore not surprising that Army refers to this as game changing technology that will potentially give Australian troops a significant advantage in future conflicts.
The speed with which Black Hornets will be rolled out is still being determined, since not every soldier needs one. There is a new program coming in the Integrated Investment Plan: LAND 125 Phase 4 – the soldier combat ensemble – that has 11 elements or components to it. One of these is to explore the possibility of additional micro/nano UAS, which would seem to be the logical contractual vehicle for the acquisition of additional Black Hornets. This would probably see them available at section level – 12 soldiers – an increase on the current platoon level capability.
It might only be temporary, but for the moment the Australian Army makes greater use of micro/nano UAS than any other Western military, which is further evidence that innovation is now an important part of the planning landscape. Major General Toohey pointed out that in the previous week the Army had hosted the world’s first international military drone racing tournament at Victoria Barracks in Sydney, which she described as a resounding success. She summarised:
“For us, not only do drones give us a great capability from an ISR perspective, but we also find it really exciting because it is involving our soldiers in developing STEM-type (Science, Technology, Maths & Engineering) skills. Given the amount that Army has invested in new equipment, we are going through a technological step-change – and we will need to go through a commensurate change in terms of the skilling of our people.
“The drone operators we spoke with last week at Victoria Barracks actually build their own drones. They then have manufactured the components on 3D printers, assemble all of the parts – and then they do all of the software coding as well. It is a truly impressive activity.”
It is not yet known which companies have been selected for further funding, but a decision is expected soon.