Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
The three soldiers hang pressed tightly beside each other in cargo bay of the Logdrone, swinging slightly in unison in their modified paraglider harnesses as the UAS bounces in the turbulence off the road a metre below. Any moment now they will take off. The combined roar of the engine and fans echoing off the flat surface penetrates even behind the seal of their earphones, making audio communication pointless. Pushed together in the tiny space, the three physically feel the taut muscles of their shared apprehension. The lance corporal in the middle is hemmed tight by the women on either side of her. She draws on pride to quell her fear. It’s all about this moment. My gig. My Girls. All six. Not unusual amongst the teams. The 175cm height limit for the RAS force, plus the criteria for urban Pathfinders, a weight limit of 75kg and the power to weight ratio to pass a 30 m climbing gym test with no hands, doesn’t leave many men in the pool.
A lurch upwards transits to a stomach plunging surge forwards as the Logdrone tilts to 40° and accelerates up the street behind two of its kind. The noise level drops suddenly to merely deafening. The two soldiers on the outside can just manage to turn their heads and see past their legs at the road surface rushing past 4 m beneath them, though the view is becoming obscured as they enter the smoke zone. Then they are thrown violently together and to the left as the platform turns 90° at a road junction. Barely a moment later, a 3G surge is followed by momentary weightlessness as the craft rises up and over power cables across the road. They anticipate every swing and surge – they have rehearsed it enough times in the virtual simulator. That’s not because they have any control of where they go, rather it’s because they might have to instantly know where they are if the UAS is forced down somewhere else.
The route is pretty simple. Up the Western road that the main part of the force took – almost dead straight – then zigzag through the light industry area, then between a group of apartment blocks and then the dodgy bit. There is a canyon that leads straight to their objective – a 10 story ferro concrete structure amongst several other commercial buildings. This one is the headquarters of a precious stone company. It’s away from any obvious Echthros positions – but that’s the point. Two floors beneath ground level there are several gemstone trading stores and the main vault is surrounded by 2 m thick concrete. That’s where Echthros brigade commander has hidden a small tactical headquarters, the secure communications and the political team there. They have cleverly kept its signature low. No visible weapon systems on the buildings. Like the banks, front doors are guarded by soldiers, which is unremarkable. There is almost no sign of coming and going, which means they are probably doing so through one of the underground shopping centres and/or car parks.
This is it they realise. The sudden surge in speed means they must be in the canyon. The danger is not yet, both electronic and human eyes have assured that there is no CUAS system in this street – and little else will be a threat in the smoke. Extended surveillance says that the upper levels of the building are almost certainly unoccupied. But maybe there is a well concealed OP? There is always uncertainty in a ‘pop up to drop’ onto a building. That’s why a team of drones has preceded them by 10 minutes, hidden by an airburst smoke mission. If the drones had found anything up there they wouldn’t be on their way.
Now the G forces increase evenly, and they know they are in the curving climb up to roof height. A moment of weightlessness and then a sickening lurch as the Loadrone crests and transitions into a hover. The commander pulls the release hook of the forward straps, and their legs are freed and swing downwards. She looks past her feet. There, directly below them, is the promised hole blown clean in the concrete roof. No projecting bars. Good. The drone moves lower buffeted in the turbulence, the roar reflected from the roof a metre below deafening again. She operates another lever and a big, padded crate drops from behind them on a friction cord. It impacts and the drone surges upwards momentarily. She sees both soldiers thumbs in front of her and toggles again. On a similar friction line but falling faster than the crate they drop the 4 m to tumble in the concrete rubble. The auto-sheared line falls across them, and looking up through the hole they see the logdrone, freed from its load, vanish from sight, the sudden quiet almost shocking. They scramble free of their harnesses, unsling their personal weapons and move towards the walls.
As the concrete dust stirred up by the drones settles the commander looks around. Very nice penthouse, she thinks, wryly. Well probably nicer before we put two breaching munitions in the roof and blasted a couple of tonnes of concrete around. Out of the big openings that used to be windows nothing to be seen but drifting smoke clouds. She gets her bearings and moves through a doorway with decorated doors hanging at crazy angles. There are three dusty figures in the next room. Yes, the other half of her team are down safely. She gives a quick hand signal, and the team works in pairs to check and clear the floor and down the stairs to the mezzanine reception area. As they work, she hears cannon rounds impacting several floors below her. Good. The distraction fire plan. In less than two minutes she is happy and has a sentry posted. Happy to unpack the machines that will do the fighting for them. Just one thing to check first. She pulls a short crowbar from its holster on her leg and walks over to the buckled but still closed doors of the lift. A sharp jab and a twist opens a 3 cm gap. She can see reflection from the mirror behind. Thank God. During the briefings, it hadn’t mattered how many times the lift engineer had told her that by default the car is always parked at the penthouse suite, she always had a nagging doubt. No more.
One of the soldiers moves over to the crate, prys and releases a split pin and a panel falls free exposing the drones in their protective boxes, and the team and individual equipment. The other soldier pulls a flat box clear and walks over to the spot right below the hole in the roof. There she takes out the satellite unit, places it down in the concrete dust, jiggles it to make sure the base is steady, turns the on switch and unrolls a cable back to the crate where she plUGV it in. More switches are turned and the drones begin to stir. In turn the soldiers grab their individual equipment and backpacks, stepping away to fit their harnesses, turn on their thermal vision goggles, check their re-breather units and finally put on their backpack toolkit. The commander looks through the doorway and sees two soldiers from the other half of the team still unpacking their crate: hundred percent redundancy of mission gear. She motions to the soldier next to her to change places with the sentry.
No more than five minutes later the team are on the mezzanine level below, peering into the lift shaft having pried the doors open, locked the lift car in place above their heads and fitted a suspension strop from its floor. They’ve even rigged a safety cable at knee height. The commander reflects that three days studying mechanisms on the urban reconnaissance course had just paid off. She lies down with her head well over the lip and motions to the soldier beside her who starts to quickly pay out from a long roll of flashtube that is suspending a 2 kg demolition charge. Hanging on a cord below the explosive is a glowing light stick to plumb the bottom of the lift well. A twist of coloured insulation tape around the flashtube indicates the approximate length and the soldier starts to pay more slowly. The commander says: “that’s it, I can see that the light stick is down, put backup 20 cm – okay that’s it – tape it there.” There’s a ripping sound as a strip of carpet tape is unpeeled and used to stick the flash tube to the lip right in the centre of the door. She looks around, final confirmation that all the gear she’s about to need is correctly laid out. “Okay let’s do this – get around the corner ladies”
The shockwave of the detonation is through the floor a moment before the blast wave hits the base of the suspended lift and thumps out into the penthouse, with another reflected pulse a moment late. It is a few seconds longer before the rising hot black smoke pours out of the lift doors, and by then team are moving towards the opening with different items of gear. The first soldier there releases an already whirring Spheridrone, holding the dispenser for the tether clear of the lip, while the commander looks above her to check that the safety lock device is still in place, stepping aside for two other soldiers to clip the rope bags and power ascenders to the dangling strop.
The team gather round the ruggedised monitor, but thermal camera is still whited out by the hot combustion products in the shaft. The soldier holding the filament dispenser notices the colour change and says: “nearly there” just as the whine of the drone’s rotors that echoes up the shaft changes pitch. Now they wait. Steadily, gradually, the image from the hovering sphere starts resolve. They see the rectangle of a doorway, then beyond that a foyer-like space. “Okay, I’ve seen enough, park the tethered ball – tape the tether now – that’ll gives us tunnel-to-satellite comms – now, let’s put some bigger beasties down there.
Two stories below ground level the first Spheridrone5 moves out through the wrecked doors. The synthesis of the output from its visual range camera combined with the infrared torch and its thermal imager begins to be able to offer an image through the smoke and dust of post-explosion subterranean conditions. As the drones move around the space is clear that the lift opens out into a large reception foyer. In one direction, heavy security doors bar access to what seems to be a corridor towards an adjacent underground complex, and the other direction a doorway is no longer closed, it’s broken doors hanging on their hinges. Sprawled bodies in uniforms and collapsed tables show that a few minutes ago this space was the checkpoint that controlled access to the Echthros brigade headquarters behind.
The hovering drone stays high bouncing against the ceiling as it spins and captures images of devastation. Not utter destruction, for the vault itself is all concrete and stainless steel and reflected blast waves have done little to it. No, the effect is on the humans, who lie like tumbled skittles across broken furniture and spilt papers. There are perhaps 25. Perhaps three are moving.
The Lance Corporal looks up from the monitor. “Ladies, we are going to get ourselves some souvenirs – Rebecca, drop the pot”. One of the soldiers lifts up a paint can sized object by its improvised parachute, pulls the igniter and drops it down the shaft. They can hear it sizzling as it drops, and the sum of its landing echoes back up to them. No further orders are needed. She and her two buddies fit their facemasks, sucking to test them for a good seal, crack the generator and open the flow valve. They pull their thermal goggles down over their eyes, shake their heads to ensure their helmets are fitted tightly and pat each other to check that their weapons and tools are secure. The leader beckons and the others press their chests into hers as they lock their harnesses together. Then, like a cautious six legged crab they shuffle to the shaft, one of the others pulling the power ascender back over solid ground to clip it to their connected harnesses. The familiar motion they bend their legs to take up the slack and, wedging their feet on the sill push themselves back out over the void. The leader pulls hard on the control lever. They drop away fast. In the Darwin control room, the one star puts down the phone on which he has just been speaking to an Australian soldier in the Echthros brigade headquarters. He looks up at the large map display and the pattern of blue dots that runs from the beach landing site right through to where it is blossoming in the centre of town. He looks at the blue clusters in the forest area and the trails of blue leading back to blue symbols on the water. He speaks:
“ladies and gentlemen, Australia has opened the door, it is time for our Filia friends to take their town back.” A quickwitted operator looks at the image coming from her drone and flicks it up onto the master screen. A long column of infantry, carrying packs, walking 20 m apart from each other, walking to battle. The Filia infantry.
Dr Charles Knight developed this narrative as part of concept development and design activity with EOS Defence Systems to inform current and future Australian autonomous and remote operations technology development. Many of the concepts covered in this narrative are being actively pursued by EOS Defence and numerous other Australian industry players.
Images by James Wilson-Knight
Dr Charles Knight
Dr Charles Knight explores how to reduce the risks and costs of combat amongst structures and populations – an interest sparked when as a Parachute Regiment officer he was tasked to develop urban combat and subterranean capabilities for confronting the Soviets in the German city of Hildesheim. He is a senior researcher at the University of NSW, Canberra and an adjunct lecturer at Charles Sturt University. His Masters research analysed vulnerabilities to asymmetric attacks in cities and his PhD examined coercion duringcounterinsurgency – both informed by field research in the Lebanon and Cambodia, as well as by uniformedservice with the RAF, British and Omani Armies and in Asia. In Australia he served in 1 Commando Regiment, commanded 2/17 Bn, Royal New South Wales Regiment, spent a decade in the Special Operations development branch, drove reform of close combat training and wrote the Australian Army urban doctrine.