A picture of a drone with four rotors.

2023-12-10 Drones

It may take years, but at some point Ukraine is going to have a drone that flys like an Osprey and can fire micro rockets while functioning as infantry anti-drone defence.

A Brief History of Air Warfare

People preparing to fight the last war may have been taken by surprise by the use of drones, but the entire thing was entirely predictable. It also remains entirely predictable so we can see where we are going.

How and why? Well, it comes down to the invention of the lithium ion battery. That is the key technology, and why? The laws of physics putting a limit on air power.

We’ve probably had kites as long as we have been watching leaves fall and fly away from a tree, or even longer. Perhaps our non-human apes made something and threw it off a cliff. We don’t know but what we do know is there has been the forces of wind and potential energy (gliding).

China invents rockets by the 13th Century. So far ahead, Europe carries on in ignorance without it.

It’s about 1489 and Leonardo Da Vinci has been watching birds flying. He understands its to do with air flow and he knows screws can lift water. He sketches out the idea of a flying vehicle with a screw propeller. It looks much like the concept of a helicopter.

One day, Orville and Wilber Wright match their name and make something (wright basically means maker) that pushes wind over the wings and also propels forward. In 17th December 1903 they prove they have invented a working plane, adding gasoline to the power supply. They also realised that the issue of flight was power verses weight.

In the trenches of world war one, the soldiers risk getting shot in the head by looking over their trenches across a field. Even if they do, they don’t really see anything. Fortunately the posh lot know someone within the flying club, who can fly one of those newer planes. In Britain the army creates a new branch called the Royal Air Corp. They are up high looking down where all the trenches look like they are draw on a map. The first repeatable arial reconnaissance is made. The allies and the Germans wave to each other, they might even know each other. The role at first can’t do much else but it sees all.

The generals love this then hand them hand grenades and ask them to drop them over the side while over the enemy and then hand them a hand gun and as them to shoot at the enemy pilot.

Power to weight is still important. Bombers are invented, optimised for carrying weight, fighters are invented, optimised for manoeuvrability.

The jet engine is invented, providing incredible thrust and the afterburner also adds a rocket push onto that.

At this point all sorts of aircraft, missiles and rockets develop filling up all sizes and shapes, providing of course it will fly. Rockets just burn their ‘powder’ and so can be any size. They can also go upwards to switch chemical energy for potential energy and use the efficiencies of gliding or just ballistically falling. Petrol engines, the weaker end of the power things, can’t get that small while having room for a decent payload. They tend therefore to be sized up to be useful for humans and human loads. Jet engines have gotten smaller, and with that we have the cruise missile, which is basically a small jet engine pushing explosives while using wings. As a mini-plane, this is why cruise missiles are expensive.

In a nutshell, the size of weapon is related to the minimum size of the thing that gives power. Then along came the lithium ion battery.

The Economics of War

Economics that is based in maths, is just an explanation of logic and in many ways the meta expansion of physics. An army is not a static thing once made. It requires constant resourcing. There are two competing pressures and unsurprisingly it’s explained with evolution. Evolution is not a biological thing, it is a logic process. There is the evolutionary pressure to be bigger, faster, strong and more deadly and there is the evolutionary pressure for everything to be more efficient with resources.

It’s so obvious people barely think about it, but its important to destroy the enemy’s fighting capacity with a lesser fighting capacity. You don’t take out a jet ski by ramming it with a naval cruiser, you try to take out a cruiser with a jet ski (a nod to Ukraine). You use little lumps of metal called bullets to take out people, planes and etc. Planes fire rockets to take out other planes, they don’t ram them. A cruise missile, an expensive mini plane, is still cheaper than the bridge it took out. If the enemy kept flying it’s planes into your missiles, you’d keep firing the missiles.

We have a new power source. Along with rocket, petrol, jetful, potential energy, we now have battery. The lithium ion battery made small flying things possible. Enough to put four rotors in the corners, making a stable frame and now you can hover easily. Drones are not a new form of war. They are a new thing but they are simply an extension of the air war. You now have a flying bomb that is cheaper than the missile used to shoot it down.

You can see the economics of war play out in the air right now. As well as targeting civilians in an attempt to pull away air defence from the front, Russia began using them attritionally. Where there was big target, big missiles were deployed capable of taking down bombers. Russia had a win-win. Either a drone would hit its target or it would take out a more expensive missile. This was until Ukraine responded by deploying European gun slinger AA that would take down a drown with cheap bullets.

The Future of Drones

The most clever use of drones is by Ukraine who are teaching the world. In 2022 the scratch force of volunteers took what they had. Drones for fun became reconnaissance. Next they learned to throw a grenade over the side. First person drone racers had RPG ammunition and realised they could personally deliver it. Now Ukraine is so precise it can tap the exact weak spot of a Russian tank (on the back between the turret and the body where the autoloading ammunition is stored), and with just a grenade, vaporise the enemy inside and blowing the tank in tiny parts. Russia started copying Ukrainian drone bombers and these are being brought down now by smaller, faster and cheaper Ukrainian fighter drones (moments formally reconnaissance drones).

The drones will also get smaller with smaller explosives that are to be flown directly at an enemy soldier. They will probably get a nickname, something like ‘Dirty Harry’ given the similarity of being hit by a magnum round. Someone will look to produce one for every Russian soldier and they will have some success. Some media magazine will produce a story with the headline “Is this the end of the gun?” and a few months later someone will produce a gun that can fire these, give it a nickname like a “Thomas” gun and just calls these drones ‘smart rounds’.

Also, at some point Ukraine will work out how to fire an RPG at point blank range, in a way the drone can survive, so it can be reused. At this point, not doing this will immediately seem wasteful. The mechanism might also be able to fire fireworks at other drones and suddenly you have airborne missile defence. The drone layout will also change. The flying X’s will be horribly old fashioned. The fans will be tiled 90 degrees and the body will be converted into a wing, so when it hovers it will look like a number 5, probably called S shape. This thing will be able hover like an aircraft pointing it’s nose up because it will then fly like a fighter jet. It will carry fireworks for taking out loitering drones.

It may take years, but at some point Ukraine is going to have a drone that flys like an Osprey and can fire micro rockets while functioning as infantry anti-drone defence.


See the credits for an example of saturation. This one is HIMARS but it can also be done with drones.