Suicide Drones, Mini Blimps and 3D Printers: Inside the New Army Arsenal

A model of an insect size U.S. Air Force drone is held by a member of the Micro Air Vehicles team of the Air Force Research Laboratory (REUTERS/Skip Peterson).

Editor’s Note: View the photo gallery for this article here.

Flying grenades. Mini spy blimps. Robotic bomb-busters. Suicide-vest spotters. Battlefield 3D printers. The Army is retooling for a very austere, very remote way of war. And the gear that’s required is very different from the hardware that came before.

Most American soldiers used to live and fight from massive bases, complete with all sorts of creature comforts and heavy defenses. Today’s troops don’t have it so good. They’re increasingly operating from small, isolated outposts, where they need to spot and ward off attacks without all the gun turrets and heavy armor and surveillance towers found on the old super-bases.

Coming up with that new gear has become a top mission for the Rapid Equipping Force, the Army office charged with getting tools and gadgets out to troops in a hurry. They showed off their latest kit at Ft. Belvoir, Va. just before Thanksgiving. Here’s a sample.

Battle Lab in a Box

At Camp Nathan Smith outside of Kandahar, there’s a 20-foot cargo container loaded with a 3D printer, a computer-controlled machine for cutting metal, and a couple of Ph.D.s. It’s one of three REF “expeditionary labs” placed around Afghanistan that can quickly design and prototype tools for troops on the ground right now.

The Nathan Smith team, on the screen above, printed up new bolt links for the M240 machine gun on their remote weapons system when the old ones broke. They coded a program that plots enemy attacks on Google Earth. And over the course of three weeks, they built in the lab new adapters that extended the battery life of their metal detectors from 45 minutes to 30 hours. The Army liked the adapters so much, they ordered up another 2,000, which will be distributed all over Afghanistan.

Flying Grenade

Don’t call it a drone. Sure, it looks just like a small unmanned aerial vehicle — right down to the little wings and the cameras. And yes, it’s remotely flown. But the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System is more like a tiny, flying grenade. The 5.5-pound device contains just enough explosive material — a little more than a shotgun shell’s worth of tungsten pieces — to make a single target’s day unpleasant in a way no small drone can.

The REF has sent 44 of the munitions over to Afghanistan, according the Army’s Heather Gleason (pictured above). None have been used to attack militants yet (the lone attempt was scotched because of a dud warhead). But that could change very soon. The LMAMS can be launched in less than two minutes, as opposed to the 20 or 30 minutes it ordinarily takes to call in mortars or artillery rounds. The quick turnaround time — plus a range of up to six miles, a speed of up to 85 knots, a proximity fuze, and directional blast radius of just a few feet — should make it a rather interesting option for a platoon or a squad in the middle of an Afghan firefight. It might not be mistaken for a drone for very long.


Traditionally, the folks who buy the military’s battlefield gear don’t have a whole lot of firsthand experience actually fighting a war. REF chief Col. Peter Newell would be an exception to that rule.

A former armor officer and member of the Army’s Ranger Regiment, Newell was involved in some of the worst fighting of the Iraq conflict: 2004’s second battle of Fallujah, which left more than 330 men dead. His troops won the Army’s highest unit honor for what they did during the nearly two-week-long battle. Newell earned a Silver Star for bravery after he helped rescue a mortally wounded soldier.

The fighting made his already-bad hearing a whole lot worse — years of riding around in tanks and jumping out of helicopters will do that to a guy. But it left Newell with a pretty decent sense of what troops under fire really need.

Robotic Bomb-Roller

When Col. Peter Newell took over the REF in 2010, he heard one thing over and over again: do something about the pressure plate mines that were blowing apart U.S. troops as soon as they stepped on them. “The pressure plate problem was driving people batty,” Newell tells Danger Room. “Commanders were not overly polite in saying, ‘If you do anything, do this.’”

“We’ve done a good job armoring vehicles,” Newell adds. “But for the dismounted soldier, he’s got a stick waving on the ground like he did in World War II.”

Part of the problem was that the Army didn’t really understand how the crude anti-personnel mines worked. They didn’t know, for example, how much pressure it really took to set them off, or how much pressure a soldier’s foot created.

Newell commissioned studies from the FBI and from the military academies to find out. The answers astounded him. The modern soldier lugs around so much gear that he can not only trigger a bomb. He generates more pressure than even a tank creates. “A tank could technically drive over these things and not set them off,” Newell says. “But a soldier can.”

That meant the REF needed something big and heavy to detonate these bombs before a soldier’s foot did. So they took a T110 Bobcat track loader, and stuck a set of mine-rolling wheels on the front. Then they outfitted the thing with a robotics kit — a half-dozen cameras and a set of radios so someone could remotely drive it.

The REF calls the thing the Minotaur. There are 25 of them currently in Afghanistan. And they are setting off bombs every week or 10 days. Better a robot’s wheels than a soldier’s foot.

Solar Drone

The Army and Marine Corps have bought thousands of hand-held drones, which can spy on a small piece of the battlefield. But the small eyes in the sky have a major weakness: they can only fly for about an hour before the batteries die. The REF believes it can double that endurance, by outfitting the drone’s wings with these flexible solar cells.

The paper-thin cells are space-grade, with three layers of gallium arsenide semiconductors built inside. If they can withstand the punishment of Afghanistan, these most plentiful of drones could become way more useful.

All Terrain

It’s just like a regular Kawasaki all-terrain vehicle. Except for the run-flat tires. And the infrared lights. And the litter carrier. And the skid plates. And the machine gun mount. And the detachable roll cage, which allows the ATV to be carried by a helicopter.

REF contractor Steve Hill shows off the “Light Tactical ATV,” about a hundred of which are in action overseas.

Blast Monitor

In the last decade, an estimated 200,000 troops have suffered a traumatic brain injury. Yet the military’s understanding of how these injuries occur — and its treatment of these wounded troops — remains woefully inadequate.

This so-called “Integrated Blast Effect Sensor Suite,” incorporated into a soldier’s protective vest, is one small way the Army is trying to address the problem. In the front are four pressure sensor, each about an inch square. In the back is an accelerometer. If the soldier gets hit with an improvised bomb, the suite will measure the impact of the blast.

The data is then incorporated into a soldier’s medical record — which is important, because troops with TBIs are too often denied treatment by the Pentagon or the Veterans’ Administration because of inadequate evidence of injury. It’s a start to a solution. Barely.

Suicide Spotter

On Wednesday, a suicide bomber made his way to an American base in Kabul, and set off his explosive vest. Two Afghan security guards were killed.

The loss of life would have been greater still, if the guards hadn’t spotter the bomber and his accomplice first. The REF is trying to provide even an earlier warning, with an infrared camera called the Sapphire. The Army claims can spot hidden suicide vests from up to 250 meters away by looking for telltale heat differentials from the bombs.

130 Sapphires are now at bases around Afghanistan, the REF says. Whether the sensors could’ve stopped this latest suicide attack, we’ll never know.

Lighter-Than-Air Power

Floating over every big military base in Afghanistan is a spy blimp that watches for incoming attacks. But U.S. forces are leaving those big bases for much smaller, more isolated outposts. And at those remote locations, there’s no room for the dozen or so people required to set up and operate one of the big blimps.

The REF’s answer is Altus. It’s a smallish, helium-filled tethered aerostat that can carry about 10 pounds’ worth of surveillance gear — and doesn’t need a huge crew to maintain. Once it’s up and running, a single soldier can operate the Altus and a half-dozen other air and ground sensors from one workstation. When one camera or radar spots someone coming, the other sensors automatically slew to that spot to see what’s going on.

But if that other surveillance equipment isn’t around, it may not matter. The blimp can still have an effect. “You put up a balloon and change the locals’ behavior. Maybe all you need is a half-pound dummy sensor,” Newell says.

The REF has sent four different aerostats to Afghanistan, each a little different from the next. The hope is to have a dozen blimps flying over small bases soon. Watch out.