The Army’s Newest Drone Can Stay Airborne Forever

PARC floats above infantry bases—provided there’s power down below

Tiny drones are great for small infantry units operating way out in hostile territory. They’re lightweight, with sophisticated cameras and the ability to keep an eye out for incoming bad guys. But they can’t stay up in the air for very long.

That’s why the Army is testing out a new drone that can stay up in the air for pretty much … forever.

The Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications system, or PARC, isn’t supposed to operate under its own power, although it does have a small battery. Instead, the quadrotor relies on a long string of microfilament carrying electrical power and Ethernet communications between the drone and a ground control station.

This means as long as the drone has ground power, it can stay in the air and feed data to operators on the ground.

The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force picked up the ’bot for testing this month. It’s also a coup for manufacturer CyPhy Works—a drone start-up led by iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner.

While the normal process by which the military picks new technology can takes years, the REF—a product of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—gets new gadgets into the field in weeks or months.

CyPhy works developed PARC with small infantry units in mind. A forward operating base with generator power could keep one of these airborne as long there’s fuel and an AC or DC plug to stick the drone into.

PARC’s power and Ethernet cable. CyPhy Works photo

Most military drones fall into two categories. There are long-range Air Force drones designed to orbit at medium to high altitudes for hours and hours. Global Hawk, Reaper and Predator fall into this category.

Small Army and Marine units out in the field have drones, too. But these Scan Eagles, Ravens and Shadows can only stay airborne for a few hours at most, depending on the particular machine.

PARC is something of a hybrid. That gives small infantry teams a cheap vehicle for long-term surveillance. The only downside is that the quadrotor isn’t maneuverable.

But the point is to send the automatan into the skies—roughly 1,000 feet up—and let it sit there scanning all day long with its electro-optical and infrared sensors. If someone cuts the microfilament, or it loses ground power, then the PARC’s battery kicks in and the drone lands automatically.

The lack of maneuverability might also not be a downside, given its role. An infantry unit doesn’t need to train how to fly the thing.

All they need to do is man the ground station, watching out for enemies.

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