Science Fiction Problems: Drone Ideas

Hello everyone! Last week I talked about thinks you need to consider when adding significant drone warfare to your science fiction story, and this week I’ve got a bunch of different articles and videos that can give you some ideas for different kinds of drones you might want to use. These fall roughly into three categories (Air, Land, and Sea) and represent both combat drones and drones that could be used in war situations.

Air (Not Just Unmanned Planes)

This is a form factor we’re all familiar because it’s the one currently being put to effective use. The other form factors are struggling to find a place in modern warfare, but unmanned air vehicles have already proven useful in a support role to existing human forces. First, let’s cover the basics.

US military drone types CBO Publication 4083

These are the basic types of US military drones, drawn to scale, courtesy of the Congressional Budget Office. Not shown is the Navy’s new stealth fighter drone, the X-47B, which is still in testing. This diagram gives you a sense of scale, where the biggest drones are almost as big as their manned counterparts, and the smallest are man-launched hobby-plane sized.

Here are some non-traditional form factors for your consideration:


I cannot imagine a more terrifying sound for a drone, can you? I think this is an incredibly creative design taking an obvious hint from nature. The “boomarang launch” shown in the video makes me think this could be a really easily man-launched vehicle, and if someone decided to take the project’s acronym literally (ignoring the Geneva Convention), you could have a particularly deadly anti-personnel weapon on your hands.

I know I’m putting a lot of videos in this post, but with some of these, you really have to see it to be able to understand what makes these drones unique. In this case, the concept is rather simple: it’s basically a prop plane that flies propeller-side up. But look at the way it moves! It can drift and loft like a helicopter and then tip and zip away, using its fins as wings to generate lift. As a scout drone, this is an ingenious design for urban settings.

Land (Over Hill, Over Dell, Etc.)

Land-based drones have not been typical in modern drone warfare simply because it’s hard to come up with something better than foot soldiers and normal ground vehicles. Instead, the US military has relied on aerial drones in a support role to ground forces, coordinating airstrikes, gaining perspective on the battlefield, and generally making soldier’s jobs easier and less dangerous. There are, however, several ground-based drones in the works (and in some cases already on the field) that are intended to operate in combat situations. Here are some examples to get your creative juices flowing.

This is the APD (Autonomous Platform Demostrator), a remote weapons platform being developed by TARDEC, a firm of the US Army (similar to DARPA). As you can see from the video, it’s pretty quick could act in many support roles on the battlefield (just stick a gun on it first). Vehicles like these are fairly basic ideas (it’s pretty much just a giant remote-controlled tank), but remember that with these, you don’t have to make room for passengers and pilots, and you can drive it into battle without the risk of human lives.

Here are some other less typical form factors:


I’ve featured BIGDOG in other posts and should point out that it is technically a robot, however, I think it’s a perfect example of muli-legged drone from factors. The extra legs give it added stability and carrying capacity, as the purpose of the ‘bot is basically just to haul 400 pounds of baggage across rough terrain. Legs, as opposed to tracks or wheels, can handle terrain types that would otherwise be unmanageable, and can self-right and self-balance if they fall. Before adding legged drones to your story, however, think hard about whether or not wheeled or tracked drones wouldn’t be more practical. Star Wars-esque walkers just for the sake of having walkers is pretty cliche.

DARPA Petman posing

The non-skull-crushing version of the pose pic, obviously photoshopped to make us squishy humans more comfortable.

I couldn’t talk about land-based drones without talking about DARPA’s latest Terminator-prototype! Again, I’ve featured PETMAN before, but this is the best example of intentionally combat-oriented bipedal ‘bot I could find as an example. Granted DARPA claims it’s just supposed to used for testing chemical suits (a claim somewhat undermined by the announcement of their new bipedal robot competition), but there’s no doubt that having something like PETMAN to breach the door of a terrorist den or pop its non-brain-filled camera head up to check for snipers would be a great boon for any soldier.

Sea (Because Sailors Need Robots Too)

To cover my bases, I went and looked up as much as I could on water-based drones used for combat, and while I turned up loads of evidence that they are even now being widely used, there don’t seem to be that many articles detailing them. However, I did manage to find this pretty goofy (but apparently real) promotional video for RAFAEL’s Protector USV (Unmanned Surface Vehicle).

So basically, a remote-controlled boat with a gun on it. Eh, works for me. They’re actually very tactically useful (especially against an invading squadron of bull sharks, apparently). When the coast guard confronts pirates and smugglers, sending USV’s like this in first shows that they mean business. The intimidation factor of not actually having soft targets to fire guns at makes it hard for any criminal to hold out for long.

However, there are several other non-standard form factors to think about:

Ok, they don’t blow up or anything, but they look pretty much exactly like torpedoes. The Seaglider, designed by iRobot (the same makers of Roomba and several safety/disposal drones), is capable of 10 month long data-gathering missions up to a 3300 foot depth, tracking temperature, chemical traces, and other information. They’re currently being used to monitor the Gulf of Mexico after the Horizon oil spill a while back. As far as combat usefulness, having a bunch of these swimming around patrolling the ocean would make it almost impossible to sneak into a country’s borders unnoticed, and hey, you could make them blow up like real torpedoes too, if you want (why wouldn’t you?).

Looking more like an invasion of tiny alien death pods, these little sensor drones were invented by Jules Jaffe at the Scripps Institute to be scattered over areas of interest in order to track anything from aquatic life to  chemical pollution. They are designed to work in vast networks with larger, soccer ball-sized units out in the open sea. They might look like bouys, but they have a special balast system that lets them rise and sink as needed. An alternative to the moving torpedo-type drone, smaller, networked drones have the benefit that if one of the smaller parts is damaged or destroyed, the overall effectiveness does not suffer, as the network rebuilds itself dynamically.

Well that was a lot of information! I hope you will find this useful  as a reference (or at least an interesting distraction). There’s a lot I didn’t cover, but I think this is a good mix of standard and unusual  types of drones to get your ideas flowing. I’m not on the roster for next month, but I’ll pop in every now and then for updates!

Until then, what do you all think? What are your favorites, or which ones do you think are the most practical? Do you think that legged drones will ever come into widespread use? Let me know in the comments below!


About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on April 25, 2012, in Erik Marsh, Inspiration, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, science fiction problems, Technology, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. The Japanese spherical flying drone is just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I want one, but as a car. I can see those going into widespread practical (and urban) use. It would be a very interesting form of transportation, and if we ever got flying cars they would probably be a lot more like that than an actual car or mini-plane.

    • I know! That’s definitely my favorite of the bunch. I actually remember seeing someone performing tricks with a hobby R/C prop plane once. He flew it propeller-side up like a helicopter, which is pretty much how this works.

      The problem, though, which will get in the way of using a design like this for a manned vehicle is weight distribution. When you look at that thing, there doesn’t seem to be any good place to put a cockpit, does there? Since it’s a sphere, its very symmetrically balanced, so adding weight on one side would throw it off. It also seems to me that it would be awfully disorienting to fly in, like trying to pilot a beach ball as it tumbles through the air.

  2. I’ve got to disagree about the statement that they haven’t found that many military applications for using land based drones. I know that they are using them to defuse/destroy bombs and mines, and to be the first to enter a building (or famously, caves, in Afghanistan) for reconnaissance purposes. I believe the reconnaissance drones are not only fitted with video cameras and a microphone, but also a machine gun and a rocket launcher. Which makes it ideal for city warfare. There are several manufacturers of this kind of drone, for instance, irobot has one.

    • I know what you’re referring to, but these “drones” aren’t much more than modified bomb disposal robots. They’re not designed to be integrated into regular deployments in a support role (as per BIGDOG or aerial drones), or to operate independently. The robots you’re referring to are packed onto trucks or armored transports and driven to each location. I mentioned a few not specifically designed for combat (like the quadrotors, although everyone knows they’ll be used by military and police), but my intent was to point out unique ideas within each terrain type. Retrofitted bomb disposal robots are slow, boring, and not much to write about. You have to remember that this post was more about inspiring your writing of drones in your stories than about overviewing all currently used technology.

  1. Pingback: Science Fiction Roundup: Updates on Lasers, Railguns, PETMAN, and Virtual Reality | Lantern Hollow Press

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