Israeli defense company Elbit Systems unveiled over the weekend a loitering micro-drone called Lanius, designed to carry out pinpoint targeted killings in urban areas as well as gather tactical intelligence in built-up areas and even inside buildings.
Lanius is a very small and agile drone, capable of navigating its way through complex locations (like enclosed spaces, for example), taking images and mapping out sites before soldiers enter. It uses the fuselage of a racing drone and carries the Jetson TX2 artificial intelligence computing device made by Nvidia.
This is not a new technological combination, with research in the past conducted by the Robotics and Perception Group at the University of Zurich and Zurich’s ETH Institute. Led by Prof. Davide Scaramuzza, researchers have published numerous articles about the use of AI to teach drones to perform complex, acrobatic maneuvers in complex environments.
The Lanius is designed for combat in urban environments where troops don’t have a direct line of sight to the enemy. The drone is hand-portable and enters a structure through windows, doors or other openings, with the operator directing it towards its target and then detonating its payload, or the explosives in the drone.
The system is designed to enable the drone to identify people automatically and distinguish between those who are armed and constitute a threat and those who aren’t.
However, object identification and classification systems based on deep learning can make critical errors, which in the case of targeted assassinations may end in disaster. Elbit stresses that even if the drone can fly on automatic pilot, the decision to detonate remains exclusively in the power of the human operator.
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The Lanius can reach speeds up to 72 kilometers an hour (about 45 mph) and carries a lethal payload or a non-lethal one designed to minimize casualties. Elbit declined to say what kind of payload is used in the latter case.
According to specifications released by Elbit, the drone’s maximum weight at takeoff is 1.25 kilograms (2.75 pounds) and it can carry a payload of as much as 150 grams (0.33 pounds). By comparison, an Israel Defense Forces’ grenade contains about 160 grams of explosives (not counting the casing that produces shrapnel from the explosion), so that it is likely that the Lanius is most lethal at short ranges and in enclosed spaces.
Elbit calls the Lanius a “loitering munition,” similar to the Harpy made by Israel Aerospace Industries and the Shahed-136 made by Iran. But, in contrast to those drones, Lanius has a relatively short flight range due to the size of its battery, which allows it to remain aloft for no more than seven minutes.
A promotional video released by Elbit offers what may be a solution for the Lanius’ limited range – a kind of “mother ship” in the form of a larger drone that is capable of carrying several micro-UAVs and launching them as needed.
The connection between the micro-drones and the mother ship is not passive, where the micro-drone will simply be held. The bigger drone is part of a platform Elbit has developed comprising a series of autonomous and semi-autonomous robotic tools. Called Legion-X, the system allows the operator to plan, operate and manage all types of unmanned platforms.