Military steals idea of anyone who ever tied a cellphone camera to quadcopter

spy-helicopter

Check out the toy this solder is using. It’s a tiny remote-controlled helicopter. The thing comes in a kit that includes a small tablet through which the nose-mounted camera image can be viewed. These are in use in Afghanistan by the UK Military. The purpose is to help protect foot soldiers by allowing them to perform discrete reconnaissance. What would you pay for this type of life saving technology? How does $31 million for 160 units sound? For that price we expect eight propellers and a cinema quality camera.

The drone is manufactured by Prox Dynamics. They’ve been in development since 2008 and you can bet that a lot of that time went into making it “inaudible” which is the main difference we see between this and hobby-built versions. For now you’ll have to deal with trying to make your own since they will only sell to the government.

The best we can do for you when it comes to video of the thing is prototyping footage from 2009 (after the break). If you have a link to a newer clip we’d love to see it in the comments.

[via Reddit]

Comments

  1. Well you probably also pay for a vast increase in reliability. What would be worse then dropping the quad at the feet of an enemy soldier?

  2. hospadar says:

    The title should read:
    Military gets ripped off by contractor.

    This thing costs almost 200k PER UNIT!? What are they putting in there? Is it machined from a block of platinum-kryptonite alloy? Does it shoot lasers into terrorists’ eyeballs? Transmute base metals into gold?

    I’m sure it’s cool, and quiet, and all that, but is it 200k quiet? I have to imagine this thing could be made for < 1k, still be super quiet, and do almost as good a job. Also you could afford 200x more of them. I bet that'd be enough for every soldier in afghanistan to have one! Wouldn't that be better than slightly increased quietness? Or more body armor, or something? Maybe pay for some better post-discharge care for vets?

    Dumb.

    • fonz says:

      but at 1k how could you possibly make enough money to pay the lobbyist that made sure you got the contract? ;)

    • David says:

      Actually, for custom R&D work, this doesn’t surprise me. You have to support an entire R&D, manufacturing, management, finance organization for the duration of development, and keep them on staff while they support and refine their product. Not to mention all of the testing and proving and contract to provide repairs, etc… Sure, they could have gotten it cheaper. I wonder what the additional unit cost would be going forward.

    • yadakcah says:

      The source article talks about an inital contract for 4 million, with plans to expand that to 31 million. It does not say how many units the UK will get for 4 million, so it could also be 161 units for 4 million, which makes a more reasonable 25k a piece.

    • wretch says:

      IIRC, there’s more than just making it quieter. Amongst others, it can either be flown manually or follow a preset GPS coordinates, it has a max. fly time of 30 minutes, it can withstand high winds (I don’t remember the specified wind speed) and probably (hopefully) a more secure comm. channel.

      So, there’s a lot that goes into the $200K and, I suspect, a lot of it is also insurance cost.

    • Alex Rossie says:

      Not to mention economics of scale they only bought 160 units.
      The next 160 will be much cheaper most of the cost went to R&D.

      The PS3 cost Sony $3 billion to develop but you can now buy them for £120 each.
      $31 million is nothing for a test run of novel electronics.

      • Justin says:

        PS3 (and PSP iirc) have always been sold at a loss. The discs were the moneymaker, hence the closed source/DRM/anti-hacker mentality surrounding much of Sony’s products.

        I’d compare it to developing for medical industry. Low volume, high Q&R and muchos research.

        • Dax says:

          Even then the price can be a total ripoff. I remember last time when the NHS got duped into buying what amounted to fancy Wii balance boards for £35k a piece, which were later revealed to be no better and internally very similiar to the actual Wii balance boards. Someone just copied the idea, took the money and laughed all the way to the bank.

    • Pinky's Brain says:

      You pay for the non recurring cost … how many UAVs that size can hover for 30 minutes?

    • HUD not FUD says:

      > This thing costs almost 200k PER UNIT!? What are they putting in there?
      Well, since there are no off the shelf heads up displays, I’d assume the majority of the cost would be the HUD.

    • Hirudinea says:

      Actually the helicopter cost $50 and the tablet $100 the rest of the $193600 went on booze and whores, that’s how you win government contracts.

    • Jim says:

      I handle all of the inspection requirements for our manufacturing company, and we sell stuff to a contractor for the government. Do you want to know why each unit could cost $200k? All the GD red-tape. You want to put a motor in that? It needs to be custom? First article paperwork is going to cost you a couple grand per feature. It needs to be made out of something? Well, that means analysis paperwork from some expensive lab to some ridiculous MIL standard. Another couple of 10s of grands there. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense, and I don’t agree with it. But once you deal with the ridiculous nonsense of MIL standards, and vague drawings (or completely over toleranced) that you get from a military contractor, you realize you have to charge that much to stay in business.

      Now, if there was only a local radio shit in Afghanistan, they could just buy a cheap one.

    • Phil F says:

      For $31 million the Chinese could have made about $32m units :D

      • AndroidCat says:

        Do you think that it’s a good idea to have American soldiers depend gizmos where the parts, ICs, radios and software are made in China? That sounds tailor-made for a buried hack.

        I do wonder how resistant these toys are to hacking or jamming.

    • I can assure you its jam-packed with goodies that make it a launch and forget it gadget for the caliber of intellectual acumen of young soldiers out there worldwide. All of that auto-recon stuff it does is probably part of it’s A.I. package. It must have GPS, 360 degree threat sensors, nylon bearings, a mini air powered *notor* in the rear instead of a conventional rotor, collision avoidance, IR camera for night recon, self-landing, auto-home, recovery beacon, etc. All the soldier has to do is turn it on and press “GO” or “RECALL”. There’s probably a manual over-ride but it must be password protected for officers only. Let me see that in your Brookstone toy chopper for $299 USD.

      I’m only guessing at this now… (LOL)

      • That German Guy says:

        I disagree on one point: It has to be password protected FROM the officers. Except for flyboys, CBRN and maybe, possibly logistics people, officers in general shouldn’t be trusted with anything more dangerous or complicated than a dry sponge.

  3. eoi says:

    The Crazyflie that HaD wrote up here

    http://hackaday.com/2011/04/29/mini-quadrocopter-is-crazy-awesome/

    is close to launch now

    http://www.seeedstudio.com/depot/preorder-crazyflie-nano-quadcopter-kit-10dof-with-crazyradio-bccfk02a-p-1365.html?cPath=170_172

    (disclosure: I’m not affiliated, though I’m a bit crazy and would like to fly)

  4. Ren says:

    FYI
    A recent Time magazine cover story is about UAV’s, quadcopters, and such.

  5. Mike says:

    Shouldn’t it be soldier, not solder?

  6. Remko Janse says:

    could be a fun project building a clone, that looks as cool

  7. Thoquz says:

    There’s one for the consumer market too (not exactly, but keep the application and idea of it in mind), and it costs a fraction of the price. Check it out:
    http://www.alwaysinnovating.com/products/mecam.htm

    This one is also planned to be way cheaper ($49).
    Sorry if I embedded the link incorrectly, not sure if the comments bar accepts html.

  8. bWare says:

    I still have my ideas!

  9. If they are interested in toys i will sell them a football for 50K with a camera.
    It is cheaper as this model and so it is disposable for one time use if they want that.
    However i can put larger batteries in it and so it will operate longer.
    There are no limits of wind speed, dough i wont make it able to explode.
    But i hope you can play football with some lucky Taliban football players this way.

  10. rasz says:
  11. Nathan says:

    $31 million?!? How ridiulous! I could do it for a cool $30 million.

  12. Mark says:

    People that know things about UAVs:

    Why would they decide to use a miniature helicopter? Is there some advantage over a quadcopter or other type of hovering UAV? It seems like the control laws would be much more difficult as they implemented it.

    • wretch says:

      I also wondered about why they chose a helicopter form-factor as opposed to a quadcopter or something else. The only thing I can think of is that a helicopter requires less parts, thus lighter, thus requires less power to operate. 1 (2?) motor is also quieter than 4.

      I can see a quadcopter would be necessary if it needs to carry a heavier load (e.g., weapons), but this one is purely for surveillance purposes.

  13. TP Baily says:

    Once you go down this road, why have soldiers there at all? Drop in a UAV base package and canvas an entire area remotely with an army of these things, and then use larger versions for targeted attacks.

    I can’t say I look forward to the future of warfare, including domestic militarized police departments.

  14. CodeSmith says:

    $200,000.. wow… It better be bulletproof.

  15. Yeah, but can it deliver tacos? Lace them with some laxatives, drop them off for some insurgents, wait a few hours, and, BAM!, you attack while they’re all on the john.

  16. echodelta says:

    Toiletteban counter tactics, bead curtains, gauze, string, and fly swatters.

  17. Galane says:

    Spin Master has the Air Hogs Hawk Eye helicopter for $99 USD and the Air Hogs Hawk Eye Blue Sky airplane for $39.50 http://airhogstoys.com

    Some hacking on those for greater flight duration and a transmitter for the video would cost way less than building a mini video copter from the ground up.

    Noise reduction is mostly in how precisely made the gears are. Doubling the cost of those toys would likely get everything those very expensive mini copters have.

    Air Hogs airplanes have bodies made of a very coarse expanded foam. It’s not polystyrene, something stronger, more flexible but molded the same way. More expensive would be a two component self skinning rigid foam which could be cast in the same molds. Weight could be lighter (carry more electronics or have longer flight duration) and surface drag would be drastically reduced, also improving flight duration with the same battery capacity.

  18. n0lkk says:

    Send it back to R&D,without cloaking capabilities it’s vulnerable. A shot gun would take care one of those in short order.

    • drew says:

      I will take you up on that :) I have the gun you bring the toy and we see if you can even come close to hitting the thing lol.

      • n0lkk says:

        I have the gun, in the event you can afford this toy I’ll take the challenge :) Granted the thing can change directions quickly, but it’s the luck (good or bad depends on one’s perceptive) draw if it will or will not change directions while in flight at the correct moment to escape a hit. IIRC it hovers while gathering intel, that’s when it’s a greatest risk of be dusted.

  19. xszolix says:

    If i were a soldier, I dont want to lose on of this.

    If the soldier must retrieve it, it can compromise their position.

    • drew says:

      The point of this tech is to keep the men out of compromising positions reducing casualties and costs If the thing is lost or knocked out it is a write off. They dont wander around picking up spent brass, why would they try to save a cheap drone?

    • Jan4ever says:

      I wonder if it comes with a self destruct just in case something goes wrong and the device gets swiped. I myself would rather go with a bigger more robust device with some miner weapons maybe pepper spray, stun gun or even small charge point and shoot rockets. The rockets will only need to be accurate for 50m or so with an explosive tip I think I saw it in a movie once ;-)

  20. nobody heard about the US dragonfly ??

    http://robohub.org/robotic-dragonflies-take-to-the-sky-with-your-help/

    It has a silent model.
    Much more efficient than a helicopter !

  21. xorpunk says:

    What’s funny is all these big nations are still trying to get an edge over third world nations who have primitive defense and offense… It just shows the power of education which produces common sense in the field of strategy, Just be thankful Arab nation rebels can’t organize enough to use air combat and advanced ballistics….

    Things like laser and nuclear chemistry manufacturing actually came from these big nations realizing they were intellectually inferior, and forcing people from these superior nations to work in for them in weapons research. DARPA and these private contractors today are actually still mostly talent from Russia, Germany, and China, this is why the US will never really have secret or superior tech…

    • Alex B says:

      The only reason western countries spend so much on technology is to cut down loss of innocent life. There is always a possibility for innocent people to get hurt in war, but purposely killing or putting innocent life in danger is different. In case you have not noticed, any time an Arab nation or group attacks someone, killing, beheading, decapitation, torture and rape. Men women children are all game.
      Carpet bombing works much better than high tech, but are you willing to live with the additional “cannon fodder”?

      • xorpunk says:

        Diplomacy by an educated president and office works even better. I don;t think any US political party has that no matter what any golf playing under-educated special interest moron on TV has to say…

        • drew says:

          The US lacks diplomatic skills but the radical arabs blowing up children and inocents are somehow better suited for diplomatic talks? Are you not aware of the 6 pluss decades of failed diplomatic attempts not only on the part of the US and the west but localy as well?

      • Kevin says:

        First world countries wage war against 3rd world crapholes for practice… nothing more, nothing less. Afghanistan and Iraq were proving grounds for our military strategies and technologies. We don’t NEED to hunt down desert nomads with drones… we just do because its sweet, sweet live target practice.

        Oh, and money interests via military industrial complex, of course

        • Alex B says:

          Muslim societies have for the past 1600+ years done nothing but spread and dominate anyone who tried to negotiate.
          Just because they don’t have high tech weapons, does not mean they are poor and innocent nomads. They have been raised as warriors from birth, and have been trained by Soviet Union in partisan (guerrilla) war tactics and supplied modern weapons.
          Forget about fighting with 1st world countries. They fight with each other quite as much.

          • eas says:

            Ridiculous.

            For one thing, It was the US who armed and trained the Afghan guerrilla’s who later gave rise to Al Queda. For another, they supported the iranian military until the Islamic revolution. After that, they supported the Iraqi army in various ways.

  22. Kevin says:

    Guys… it cost so much because its a real helicopter that allows 6 axis flight. They didn’t choose quadcopters because the design is trash. Quads have twice the amount of motors, size and weight as this drone. Quads have fixed blades and rely on lame motor speed tricks for control. The blades on these drones pitch up and down, along with a tail rotor. I guarantee you it is significantly more stable and agile than a standard quad copter.

    Also: R&D costs

  23. pooty says:

    I’m sure there was a lot of R and D to get a little heli like that to fly stable outdoors! And most likely to be able to self steer clear of object in the way, so that the dumbA@ss controlling it, doesn’t crash into a wall.

  24. Richard Mathie says:

    Here is the catch; you could make a shit version for £1000 but the Labour cost of RND is not free. Plus this has GPS and a encrypted coms channel, a miniature swash place micro servos 30min battery life. ++ all the somewhere to make it work reliably (AKA idiot proof); This is expensive stuff

  25. Millionaire contractor says:

    The Taliban get theirs online for £10 a pop, and glue and wireless webcam to it.

  26. diyaspergerscure says:

    Search for FPV rc quad and you will see this can be done on the (comparatively) cheap.

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