Future Operating Environment

The Future of Unmanned Aerial Systems in the ADF

By Chris Baillie January 23, 2020


The future really is now when it comes to employing Unmanned Aerial Systems - or UAS - in varying ways in support of ADF operations. ‘Traditionally’, UAS have been supported large scale operations in roles such as ISR and Strike (think Triton and Reaper) and more recently, on smaller scales with MavicPro’s and Black Hornet devices for tactical level ISR tasks. However, future employment of unmanned systems within the ADF will not be limited to Strike and ISR, but will see UAS assisting in communications and logistics tasks.

Exploiting wider capabilities

Logistics. UPS is one of many companies trialling small UAS for delivery of packages over relatively short distances. This is the first operation in the United States that has received certification to operate a UAS for commercial purposes and beyond visual line of sight. [i]The platform that UPS have selected is capable of carrying a 2 kilogram payload over a distance of 20km[ii]. The system appears to have an easy to use base station for exchange of payload and battery. The implication for defence is this: a larger model capable of carrying 20kg over 20km can be used for light tactical logistics support in the field. The weight of 20kg will allow a payload of approximately 62 magazines of 5.56 ammunition to be carried by the system.[iii]Alternately, the system could carry around 10 CR1M or a 20L jerry can of water or fuel. 

Survey. Mining operators have been using UAS for a number of years for survey operations on sites across Australia and globally, generating high definition three dimensional imaging. Employing similar systems for site surveys for ADF tasks domestically and internationally, such as HADR and general survey operations within training areas, will likely improve the quality of survey product available. These products can assist a commander in understanding the physical terrain of a location and may reveal important detail that may have otherwise been unnoticed on a traditional product. Consider a computer based three dimensional map of a training area which is able to be explored almost as if flying a UAS around yourself or within a game. This drone generated 3D model of an open pit mine gives a good idea of how drones can be used to support surveying tasks.

Tactical employment

In a warlike environment, these platforms could be used to resupply patrols that are outside a FOB (within a limited range). From a base station setup within the FOB, these platforms can supply out to a 10km radius of the base with basic supplies which would otherwise have to be driven or flown, removing some risk to life from enemy fire and reducing the cost to Defence of enemy action: a UAS costs significantly less than a truck or conventional helicopter. A UAS is also less targetable than conventional resupply platforms. The system is smaller and quieter than a helicopter, and less obvious than a vehicle, enabling better ‘stealth’ delivery possibilities with good tactical flying as opposed to relying pre-programmed standard flights. This also allows just-in-time resupply for units which are potentially in contact with the enemy and unable to be resupplied by other means without significant risk to the resupply platform.

In a HADR environment, a base station can be established on an LHD (or even a smaller ship) to allow concurrent aviation activity. Supplies can then be ferried ashore directly to where they are needed straight from the ship's stores. Medical supplies can also be quickly ferried when needed to shore based medical facilities. Once a base station can be established on the ground in an area, these systems can supply remote areas which would otherwise be inaccessible to conventional transport means. 

Additional military applications could include other small tasks such as carrying leader lines from ship to ship where they are currently fired across using a modified rifle grenade. UAS have been used to inspect high areas where previously personnel were required to use a crane or extending work platform to conduct their inspections. 

Using UAS to survey training areas not only assists commanders making tactical decisions but also assists in determining the best area to conduct training as well as allowing Environmental Officers in monitoring the area. These systems can be used to map specific areas of interest on regular intervals to generate comparison imagery. An example of this in application would be the mapping of a beachhead in preparation for an amphibious assault or landings as well as mapping observable obstructions in the waterway.

Support to planning

In preparation for an operation through new terrain, a commander orders the UAS section to map the terrain and prepare a three dimensional map. The UAS conduct the survey mapping generating a high resolution, three dimensional model which is then sent to the commander’s computer. The product can then be manipulated and explored on a laptop or on a projector in a briefing room. This product is then broken down into packets for sub-unit commanders using simple ‘crop’ tools and further refined until it is received by section commanders in the field with their platoon's allocated area of operations viewable on handheld tablets. Each level of command can explore the terrain from all angels, allowing them to identify and exploit opportunities as well as find potential threats. 


Traditional supply systems will always be needed to support large scale operations. However, unmanned tactical systems allow greater flexibility at the sharp end where a UAS may be more effective or efficient than a weekly helicopter or truck. The utility these platforms provide allows smaller loads to be carried without ‘wasting’ a platform that has a significantly larger capacity, operating cost and operational risk. UAS can also be used in a wide range of roles where manned aircraft have traditionally been used or where the capabilities of the system provide an advantage or an easier way of doing a task.[i]

Unmanned systems can do so much more than ISR taskings: they just require innovation and experimentation in order to develop. Private companies are already experimenting with new uses for unmanned systems and military users will not be far behind. The ADF is already leading the way in incorporating UAS into how it fights. If it is to retain a warfighting edge against future adversaries, it must commit to fully exploiting all the opportunities that UAS provide.




Chris Baillie


Chris is a Divisional Officer at the Australian Defence Force Academy with prior experience as an Air Traffic Controller within 44WG.

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