Navy Develops Mini-Drone Sensor

Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Joseph Dunford, holds an NRL-developed Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft (CICADA) Mark III unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) displayed at the 2015 Department of Defense (DoD) Lab Day, May 14.

The Naval Research Laboratory is testing a new mini-drone about the size of a compact disc designed to glide into areas with special acoustic, meteorological or chemical-detection sensors, service officials explained.

The Close-in-Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, or CICADA, is a small unmanned system engineered to travel in groups and bring special detection technologies to remote or hard to reach areas. The project, while in development for several years, is still in the laboratory phase awaiting funding to transition into operational use, Navy officials said.

“A particular concept for certain kinds of missions would be to overwhelm an adversary with a bunch of very cheap, highly disposable UAVs that as themselves do not fly very well but were primarily used in large numbers to deliver payloads that would perform a useful mission,” Aaron Kahn, senior aerospace engineer, Navy Research Lab, told in an interview.

The CICADA mini-drone, described by Kahn as a flying circuit board, is designed to fly to specific pre-determined waypoints to within 15-feet of a particular location. It is built as a glide drone able to slide through the air and descend from altitudes as high as 29,000 feet.

The mini-drone does not have cameras or electro-optical sensors but rather can be outfitted to swarm or blanket an area with a range of potential sensors including weather sensors, acoustic detection technology or chem-bio assessments, Kahn explained.

“They can travel roughly proportional to the altitude that they are dropped from. If you take the altitude and multiply that height by three – that is the distance the aircraft can fly. If you drop it from one mile it can only fly three miles,” Kahn explained. “You can make a swarm or an array of these on the ground without having to use a lot of data links to do a traditional algorithm.”

Funded and developed completely by the Navy Research Lab, the CICADA will launch into some new test flights later this year slated for Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.

About five or six CICADAs could fit into a six-inch-sized cube, Kahn said, making the mini-drones useful for area denial missions or wide-area monitoring.

“It would be impossible for an adversary to go around and pick all of these things up because there would be too many of them,” Kahn said.

They could also be used with special sensors to check areas for potential chemical or biological contamination, Kahn said.

“This could be used for rapid vaccine delivery where you could attach a small vile of a vaccine. Or – it could help if there was a force that was exposed to a nasty disease and located in a remote area.

The CICADA can also be configured with meteorological sensors to measure atmospheric pressure, humidity and wind speed or direction, Kahn explained.

“The CICADA could do precision drops to do tornado research or hurricane research.  You could stand off away from a storm and drop the CICADA which would traverse into severe weather situations. It would be able to get measurements inside of clouds and other areas that would be dangerous for manned aircraft to fly into,” Kahn said.

The mini-drone is also designed for low-cost production and can be assembled by robotic technology, Kahn added.  This can bring the cost down to hundreds of dollars per drone, he said.

“We use the same robotic techniques as you would use for commercial electronics like a cell phone,” Kahn explained.

- Kris Osborn can be reached at

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Bernard

    “This can bring the cost down to hundreds of dollars per drone, he said.”
    If it were private sector that would be a few dollars per drone.


    So they’d have to be dropped no farther than about 16.5 miles from the target.
    How long do their batteries last?
    I hope their comms are encrypted, since they’d probably broadcast their location.

    • Fatman

      These don’t seemed designed for the battlefield, but rather non-combat aspects of data collection. Drop a few thousand into a hurricane to see what the weather is like or onto the site of a possible WMD attack to measure harm.

      • IHTFP

        A few thousand would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Getting a bit pricey, but could be worth the cost if it improves the hurricane tracking accuracy. But they’d have to be dropped close to the hurricane, and wouldn’t the wind blow them away?

        • Fatman

          Dropped in the right place it could blow them where they need to be to gather relevent data. And yes a few thousand a bit much, at least for this generation of the sensor.

          • Dfens

            I’m sure they’ll get cheaper. Everything the military buys always does.

          • IHTFP

            I suppose a hurricane would suck them in rather than blow them away, but I’m skeptical that “The CICADA could do precision drops to do tornado research or hurricane research. You could stand off away from a storm and drop the CICADA which would traverse into severe weather situations.”
            The stand off range is at most 16.5 miles, while hurricanes can have a radius of 100 miles of hurricane-force winds.

          • miles

            C-130 Huricane hunting research planes regularly fly into the eye of the Huricane so deploying this close into a Hurricane wont be a problem. The US navy regularly use Sonobouy to track subs and dose the US navy go and retrieve them afterwords.

          • IHTFP

            Yeah, but flying into the hurricane wouldn’t “stand off away from a storm.” The question is whether these paper planes can be dropped some distance away from a hurricane and then navigate through the winds to wherever they need to be within the hurricane.

      • ruger

        They’d work great for monitoring citizens. …but they’d never do that!

        • Fatman

          They’d suck at monitoring people. Bright yellow toys falling from the sky would change someones standard behavior in a heartbeat. Besides, citizen surveillance is done much easier with phones and computers. Government doesn’t even need to buy the hardware or come up with a complicated plan to deliver them into our homes.

  • Sandy

    Okay…once again, we have a misnomer in the use of the word “covert”….if this would fall into enemy hands, would they know it was US or not? Covert=”hiding the identity of the sponsor”….clandestine=”hiding the operation” The submariners screw this up ALL the time.

  • Joe Sovereign

    I think the idea of these would be sit and wait sensors. Acoustic sensors would be to listen for vehicle traffic or troop movements.

    There was a concept a few years ago of a robot snake that could sit by a mountain trail with acoustic sensors and cameras moving to sun itself and recharge it’s batters with solar power. In theory it could autonomously and covertly watch a key point on a trail or road for years streaming video and audio of suspicious activity back to it’s controllers.

    There might be one hiding in the grass in your backyard right now.


    If I were a potential enemy of the USA, I would take any opportunity to talk these down. We still have a Don’t Fly list…Those who just love to mix it up will now step up and proclaim its their patriotic duty to make negative comments. And it doesn’t make them potential enemies. We know the difference. Your turn.

  • BlackOwl18E

    This is the kind of technology that actually has me on edge. Am I the only one who immediately wants a law that these can’t be used here in the states by police?

    • Joe Sovereign

      Law? Your funny. We live in the post legal United States.

  • johny

    This is the kind of technology that actually has me on edge. Am I the only one who immediately wants a law that these can’t be used here in the states by police?