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May 13, 2022

Loitering Munitions: Technology trends

The loitering munitions market will benefit from increased modularity, increased use of artificial intelligence (AI), use of swarm technology, and increased sensor capabilities in the next ten years. The market will also benefit greatly from the increased proliferation of unmanned systems, as the mass use of such systems drives down the cost of mutual components, with the low cost of the systems being paramount to their application.

Listed below are the key technology trends impacting the loitering munitions theme, as identified by GlobalData.

Swarm technology

Certain loitering munitions can operate in swarms, such as Kronshtadt’s Molniya. The application of swarm technology allows for increased functions of the munitions, as well as their use in replacing other solutions in roles. The ability to function in a swarm increases unit costs, but this function is applied to roles where solutions are typically more expensive than loitering munition swarms, and where a more expensive unmanned system is likely to be lost.

AI

AI is a key symbiotic technology, as it facilitates the autonomy of the system. Key to the ability of the system to identify targets and determine attack and attack profile (or wave off) is the AI incorporated in the system. AI for swarm technology is required especially for large-scale deployment.

Mission modules

Modularity is a critical feature, as this allows the mission module to be changed for different missions. This allows for greater flexibility as well as a lower cost of operations, as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) roles can be fulfilled before a munition has a warhead and fulfills the loitering munition role.

A cost limitation is currently that operating in other roles before functioning as a loitering munition means returning and thus refueling. Having a refuellable system rather than a purpose-built one-time use costs more.

Vertical attack

Vertical attacks are ones that come straight down, providing loitering munitions with increased attack options including diving through a hatch or vent. Vertical attacks are more deadly against armored vehicles because they can target less heavily armored sections and can target the weakest point—the top armor. As this threat develops there will likely be increasing mitigation in newly developed armored vehicles.

Commercial off the shelf (COTS)

The key to loitering munitions is their price point for the capability they provide, due to their destruction. This places a significant emphasis on COTS use of components, driving down development and production costs and timelines. A further driver of this trend is the restrictions placed by International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) legislation, resulting in several loitering munitions developers and operators acquiring many of the components as dual-use parts.

Recovered used loitering munitions and seized intact munitions have shown a very high degree of COTS use. Components in this category include munition bodies, propulsion units, electrical components, subcomponents, and even over-the-counter commercial optics in some cases.

Military off the shelf (MOTS)

MOTS is an important aspect of loitering munitions in that key components are not COTS, but developing new solutions for these components, from the ground up, drive up the cost of the munitions. MOTS solves this through using existing components, typically used in, and developed for other unmanned systems.

Fuel and propulsion

A complex area is the fuel and propulsion solution. The ability to have modular mission packages, whereby a loitering munition has more than one role and more than one mission or sortie, means that for these munitions there must be a refuel solution. This drives up cost over single-use non-refuellable fuel and propulsion solutions.

Keeping loitering munitions as single-use, and separately having a reusable ISR platform can be cheaper as a result. Mission modularity cost implications, and thus the value of refuel capability, are also impacted by the specific primary role of the munition.

3D printing

3D printers have already proved their worth in the aerospace and defense industry, which requires precision engineering to produce high specification parts. Aerospace has seen some of the highest adoption rates, and the largest players are now transitioning from prototyping to manufacturing.

In the defense sector, weight saving is paramount to achieve high performance in speed and capacity, as well as further elements such as payload, fuel consumption, emissions, and safety of aircraft. This realisation is leading the aerospace and defense industry to look for applications in most new products, from seat frameworks to air ducts.

Processor chips

Microprocessors serve as the control centers for unmanned vehicles, providing a platform for control and communications software that integrates with collision avoidance sensors, high-definition cameras, and other sensors. Advances in chip design are leading to smaller chips with higher performance and lower cost, which helps to drive down the manufacturing cost of unmanned vehicles.

Chip manufacturers are expanding the capabilities of system on a chip (SoC) components to combine multiple sensing and processing elements on a single chip. ARM-based processors from companies such as NXP Semiconductors and STMicroelectronics are among the most powerful in the market, with emphasis on low power/low cost.

Miniaturisation and scalability

To improve flight performance and expand capabilities, drone manufacturers are both scaling drone technology up to deliver greater carrying capacity and endurance and scaling down to deliver low-cost, small-footprint surveillance drones. Miniaturisation of sensors helps to cut down the size and weight of drones and reduces power requirements.

Size, weight, and power consumption (SWaP) metrics are especially critical for military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to support effective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

Battery technology

Most of today’s drones are powered by lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries, which are known to deliver the energy required to perform standard drone flights. However, the ability to transport increasingly heavy payloads and to conduct more demanding operations in varied environments is constrained by the limited endurance of current drones.

Demand for longer flight times and greater carrying capacity is driving drone manufacturers to explore alternative technologies such as hydrogen cells, gasoline-powered solutions, solar batteries, gas-electric hybrid solutions, and laser solutions.

Composites

Composites are likely to see an increase in loitering munition development, primarily due to their capability to reduce overall weight and increase flight time. The Russian-developed ‘Lantset’ reduced its weight in this way, as well as the Polish ‘Warmate’.

This is an edited extract from the Loitering Munitions – Thematic Research report produced by GlobalData Thematic Research.

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