Here's the biggest problem with the Australian Defence Force buying 200 drones costing $500,000 each

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The Australian Defence Force this morning committed $100 million towards buying a fleet of small surveillance drones.

The Wasp AE drones are small enough to be carried, assembled and used by one person:

The government would not say how many drones were being purchased, but the Sydney Morning Herald reports the $100 million would buy “at least 200 WASP drones”.

That’s $500,000 for a single drone which allows a soldier to “see over the hill, around the corner and down the road”, according to defence minister Marise Payne.

No wonder shares in XTEK Limited, a tiny ASX-listed company in the homeland security market acquiring the drone for the ADF, jumped after the sale was announced:

The Wasp AE is made by AeroVironment and used by the US military, but cautiously, as it’s considered one of the most expensive pieces of equipment in the infantry’s inventory. Its off-the-shelf cost in the US is pegged at $US49,000 ($65,000).

The extra $435,000 – per drone – presumably will be eaten up in maintenance, training, communication and control systems.

But is having the latest, most expensive drone on the market the best possible solution?

In almost every area, better technology undeniably gives an army the edge. But maybe not when it comes to drones.

The Ukraine military’s experience with AeroVironment ended last year, after proving a $US12 million disaster. It bought an analog fleet of AeroVironment Ravens from the US, but found them too lightweight and short-ranged to be effective enough to counter the risk of them giving away the positions of their own troops.

To be fair, it looks like Ukraine bought a bad deal from the US, not AeroVironment, and the Wasp is clearly a superior upgrade. It can fly up to five kilometres away for an hour and has a more sensitive camera than the Skylark drones used by Australian troops at the moment. Hence the cost, and the cost of training someone to use it.

It might be the best piece of kit on the planet, but that is actually the basis of one of the bigger problems anyone committing to an expensive contracted system faces, some experts argue.

Experts like US Marine and tactical advisor Sgt Jonathan Gillis, who has “worked extensively on developing low-cost, 3D-printed UAVs for infantry use”. Just two days ago, he wrote this lengthy takedown of military use of Raven and Wasp systems.

The biggest problem the US – and Australian – military face in the battle for small airspace is evolution. Rebel operators and jihadists are moving fast, experimenting on a daily basis and getting uncomfortably close to success with “$100 hobby kits”, Gillis says.

Meanwhile, because US soldiers are spending weeks being trained on complex systems, battalions are being deployed with a single specialist drone operator. And because that drone is expensive (in the Australian Wasp case, if the Herald’s numbers are correct, $500,000 apiece), they’re reluctant to even deploy them unless the situation is absolutely critical.

That cost also can put a battalion at risk. If the Wasp falters or crashes, the pressure to retrieve a half-a-million piece of kit is difficult to ignore.

Ukraine now builds its own drones from commercially available technology – including parts from Australia – for as little as $US20,000 apiece.

And while the US Marines and the ADF are training specialist operators, jihadists are posting more and more videos like this of how they’re getting results using the $100 drones Gillis mentions:

Drones that don’t just look; drones that can kill. And drones that a kid can learn to fly in a couple of hours.

Australia’s defence industry minister Christopher Pyne said the “second tranche will upgrade the WASP AE or acquire a replacement system within the next decade”.

“Within a decade.”

Think about where drones were at in 2007. The consider what can a garage enthusiast with a single-minded purpose could come up with in 10 years of experimenting.

Maybe the ADF already is considering it, but as Gillis argues, it certainly makes sense to at least set a separate budget aside for the same kind of accessible, flexible drone development to complement the “$500,000” Wasps.

And develop drones that everyone can fly, and aren’t afraid to lose.

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