America’s Kamikaze Drone Makes the Skies Way Less Friendly

Nothing excavates a dug-in enemy infantry position like a little artillery fire, but that’s not always available. Sure, you could squeeze off a Javelin round or two but at $100,000 per shot, that’s a pricey and cumbersome option. Instead, the US military has developed an ingenious firefight drone that can spot, reconnoiter, and prosecute targets within seconds of taking to the air.

The Switchblade UAV is a platoon-level ISR/attack drone developed by Aerovironment. Classified as a Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS), the Switchblade has been in limited deployment in Afghanistan since late 2012, acting as both a reconnaissance drone and guided munition for American soldiers.

The Switchblade measures two feet long and weighs just under six pounds including its carrying case and tube launcher, making it svelte enough for a single soldier to carry. Its 10 minute loiter time detracts from the Switchblade’s usefulness as a forward scout, but in the middle of a firefight, its color camera and GPS locating is more than sufficient to identify and track human and vehicle-sized targets up to three miles (10 km) away.

The Switchblade is most useful, however, as a guided munition. It carries an explosive charge equivalent to a 40mm grenade, allowing it to target lightly armored vehicles and embedded (or otherwise inaccessible) infantry positions, such as on rooftops or ridge lines. What’s more, the Switchblade’s electric propulsion system and small stature make is a sneaky little bastard, difficult to track and able to glide silently in a window before detonating.

Like Aerovironment’s other UAVs—the RQ-11 Raven, RQ-20 Puma, and Wasp—the Switchblade uses AV’s Ground Control Station, which means that a squad can launch a Switchblade and Raven together, one for recon, the other for blowing stuff up. And if the situation changes after the Switchblade has been launched, the operator can cancel the strike and bring the UAV back for use later.

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