Just 10 centimetres long, the PD-100 Black Hornet is hand-launched into flight

PD-100 Black Hornet PRS

World’s Smallest Unmanned Aircraft System

PD-100 Black Hornet UAS

The PD-100 Black Hornet PRS (Personal Reconnaissance System) is one of today’s most fascinating remotely-operated technologies. Claimed by its developer, Norwegian firm Prox Dynamics, to be the world’s smallest operational unmanned system, it represents state-of-the-art nano-engineering and, despite only being a few years old, has already seen substantial frontline use. A reconnaissance platform at heart, providing ‘instant situational awareness’, it can nonetheless do much more besides that.

The PD-100 Black Hornet PRS ‘is described by its users as a “Game Changer” and a “Life Saver”, and has created a new standard and class for the smallest UAS [Unmanned Aircraft System]’, Prox Dynamics says of its creation, adding that it ‘bridges the gap between aerial and ground-based sensors, significantly enhancing the situational awareness for dismounted and mounted units.’

Several armed forces currently count among the PD-100 Black Hornet’s users.

Black Hornet Launch

PD-100 Black Hornet Development

The PD-100 Black Hornet’s forerunner was the Bladerunner – a twin-rotor remote control toy helicopter
optimised for indoor use of which some two million are estimated to have been sold. Founded by Petter Muren, Prox Dynamics was launched in April 2008. PD-100 development took place between 2008 and 2011, with funding supplied by several sources. These included the Norwegian Ministry of Defence and the Norwegian Research Council.

The PD-100’s design and capabilities both evolved via a series of Hornet models that ran from the Hornet-1A to the Hornet-4. Extensive flight testing preceded the start of full PD-100 Black Hornet production in 2012. Hundreds of examples would be delivered thereafter.

PD-100 Black Hornet Features

The PD-100 Black Hornet is approximately 10 centimetres (four inches) long, features a durable plastic fuselage and has a 12 centimetre (five inch) rotor span. It weighs just 18 grams - around the same as a few sheets of paper. The helicopter is powered by a rechargeable battery driving electric motors and is equipped with nanosensors and still/moving image recording systems. This surveillance equipment is contained within its nose. Among the other technology featured is a two-way data link. This data link sees directional commands sent to the helicopter and still/moving images and data sent back to those on the ground.

Black Hornet Operations

PD-100 Black Hornet Capabilities

The PD-100 Black Hornet is not technically a stealth helicopter but its tiny size and very low noise levels do make it inherently 'stealthy' in flight. Its maximum flight speed is five metres per second, which works out to around 11 miles per hour (18 kilometres per hour) and its maximum operating range is 1,600 metres out from its base station. Maximum endurance is 25 minutes and missions can take place in wind speeds of up to 17 miles per hour (27 kilometres per hour). Amongst its other capabilities, the PD-100 Black Hornet is also fully reusable.

PD-100 Black Hornet Operations

The PD-100 Black Hornet is operated from ground level. It can be flown by anyone, not just pilots, after only very limited training: in fact, only a few hours' instruction is needed. A ready-to-deploy PD-100 Black Hornet system, weighing 1,300 grams (3.53 pounds), comprises two Black Hornets, a base station, a controller and a display unit. The Black Hornets each come in their own case and can be deployed within seconds: they're literally ready to fly straight out of the box. The entire system can also fit inside a pocket, making it highly portable and, theoretically, able to deployed anywhere but especially within tight confines where the Black Hornet’s small size and ‘stealthiness’ come into their own.

Besides its fundamental reconnaissance role, the Black Hornet can also be used for search and rescue, perform crowd control and access/inspect areas deemed too risky for humans, like nuclear facilities or chemical spill sites.

PD-100 Black Hornet operations start with a hand-launched take off and finish with the UAS returning to that same position. Flights can take place in one of two ways: either via direct operation or - drawing on GPS-guided autopilot - autonomously, with the Black Hornet following a pre-programmed route.

Black Hornet Operators

PD-100 Black Hornet Operators

The British Army gave the PD-100 Black Hornet PRS its first operational frontline use. News of this emerged in February 2013 but it actually happened in May 2012 and, to quote officials, served to ‘introduce brand new game-changing capability to the modern warfighter’. Positioned on the Afghan frontline, British troops used the Black Hornet to explore insurgents’ firing positions and survey territory ahead of them. One of those involved in operating it subsequently spoke very highly of its capability, calling it “amazing.” Come late 2013, it is understood that there were more than 300 Black Hornets in British Army use.

The US Army carried out Black Hornet evaluations in late 2014 but hasn’t (as yet?) pressed the type into service. The US Marine Corps, though, is another Black Hornet operator as are the Norwegian Armed Forces via an order placed in July 2015 for PD-100 technology plus logistical support.

Black Hornet Upgrades

PD-100 Black Hornet Upgrades

So far, several PD-100 Black Hornet upgrades have been unveiled that have enhanced the basic design. One, the PD-100 Black Hornet PRS Block II, debuted in June 2014. This can better withstand stronger wind conditions, has more advanced cameras and features numerous software upgrades. Four months later, a night-vision capable PD-100 was introduced. This is known as the PD-100 T and features thermal optics allowing it to be deployed in low or zero light scenarios.

“We believe this is the single-most important upgrade on the PD-100 system to date”, Petter Muren said at the time. “The PD-100 T combines EO and thermal camera into an 18-gram helicopter, allowing fused live video and still images to be viewed by the operator. Today’s modern warfighters demand a 24-hour solution, and here you have the first nano-UAV solution to achieve this.”

Even greater things surely now lie ahead for the remarkable little PD-100 Black Hornet.

PD-100 Black Hornet PRS: Key Facts

Role: Reconnaissance UAS
Length: 4 in (10 cm)
Rotor span: 5 in (12 cm)
Engine: Electric motors
Maximum speed: 11 mph (18 km/h) 
Maximum range: 5,249 feet (1,600 m)
Maximum height: Unknown
Crew: One operator
Weapons: None
First flown: 2011

PD-100 Black Hornet in-hand photo: Richard Watt/MOD. Used in accordance with Open Government Licence v1.0

All other PD-100 Black Hornet images copyright/courtesy Prox Dynamics – used with grateful thanks

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