Army accepted delivery this week of the DJI Phantom UAS, a training drone set to be rolled out throughout the entire organisation, including Reservists and Cadets.
Sydney-based personnel of the 17th Combat Service Support Brigade (CSSB) received a DJI Phantom 4 UAS as part of the Army’s plan to issue 350 of the systems.
ADM sat down with LTCOL Kierin Joyce, SO1 UAS, COL Gabby Follet, CO of 17 CSSB, and David Mann of UAVAir, the Newcastle-based training provider, to talk about the latest UAS to enter service.
"Drones are a game changer for the Australian Army,” COL Follet said. “It’s the first army in the world that will be proliferating drones across the entire force.”
The mention of drones normally conjures images of armed Reapers floating above the mountains of Afghanistan. The Phantom, however, looks like something you’d buy in JB Hi-Fi.
The acquisition aims to catalyse drone proliferation across the Army by helping soldiers develop what COL Follet calls “drone literacy” using a relatively cheap, commercial off-the-shelf platform. “Drone literacy is every soldier and commander understanding what a drone can do for them. What the possibilities are, how to pick the right drone for the mission,” COL Follet said.
“At the moment people know they want it, but they’ve got a lot of questions. By playing with the thing we push the boundaries. We learn which drones to use for which mission. We find ways they can be beneficial to the mission. That will all inform future procurement decisions.”
“It’s learning by doing.”
For COL Follet, UAS technology is a game-changer for sustainment operations.
"We can see a future where these drones are part of our sustainment operations. We could have a large convoy with drones flying to the front, to the flanks, to the rear. That means our situational awareness is that much greater.
“We could have a tank or artillery piece out of action and it might need one part to get it going again. We could use drones to get that part there. If a soldier was injured, we could bring first aid supplies forward so we could save that life. Drones have a really wide capability.”
According to COL Follet, the off-the-shelf acquisition is also motivated by the need to wield market influence and stay abreast of the latest developments as the technology accelerates.
“Drones are evolving really quickly,” COL Follet said. “We’ve got to be part of that. We have to be experimenting with these things so we drive the technology to where we want it.
“If we’re not building our own skill set, we’re not influencing [the market] and we don’t know what we’ll be buying next.
“If you buy off the shelf, it’s cheaper and you can partner easier with industry to make that step towards the next UAS.”
LT COL Joyce said that the speed of the rollout was also due to political will amongst senior leadership.
“All our senior leaders have been on operations in the Middle East and have seen the benefits. They want to be part of it.”
The Phantom rollout, however, has not been without setbacks. It was temporarily delayed last year after the US military grounded its fleet over concerns that the Chinese-made drones were vulnerable to hacking.
“They will only be used in unclassified training scenarios,” COL Follet said. “There was a review done working in conjunction with the US, we’re really comfortable that all the checks have been done. We’re confident this is a secure system we can use for our intended purposes.”
LT COL Joyce said soldiers were keen to get started.
“All we’ve had to do is let people know the capability is coming. You’d be surprised how many diggers are bypassing procedures and emailing me directly asking to be ‘the drone guy’ in their regiment. They’re chomping at the bit.”