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Kamikazi UAVs and X-Wings

January 17, 2024  - By

A UK judge just jailed a student for building a UAV. How could that be? Well, the 3D-printed UAV built by a guy in his room at home was only part of the story. It turns out that his jailing was perhaps more related to his connection to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and his apparent intent to use this UAV loaded with explosives or a chemical weapon to attack ISIS enemies.

3D-printed drone seized by anti-terror officers and rear access panel (Image: West Midlands CTU/PA)

3D-printed drone seized by anti-terror officers and rear access panel (Image: West Midlands CTU/PA)

The experts who analyzed the vehicle stated that it was only partially built and appeared somewhat ‘primitive’ in its construction. It would seem that an explosive charge or chemical weapon would need to be located with its fusing circuitry at the front end of the UAV, and maybe the enclosure was rather an access panel to aid the build process.

It is unclear whether the protruding black item towards the front of the UAV is either a GNSS or communications antenna. This antenna would normally be placed on the upper skin and relatively close to the autopilot or comms radio. It is possible that there is a communications/control signal antenna at the top of the vertical stabilizer. Rudimentary landing gear can be seen aft of the control surfaces of the wing, but the rear propulsion does not appear adequate for the size of the vehicle. Not a bad attempt to create an amateur UAV, but a pretty bad idea for the guy involved to intend it to be a kamikaze, one-way drone for ISIS — he received a 20-year sentence.

Both Russia and Ukraine continue to churn out new models of one-way UAVs, which they enthusiastically hurl at one another. Russia unveiled a new swarm drone known as ‘Product 53’ which apparently has the ability to seek and identify targets autonomously.

With a payload of only 3-5 kg it cannot inflict severe damage on major targets, but the plan is apparently to bombard an area with large numbers of Product 53 controlled as a swarm.

So, Russia’s latest software-driven, sophisticated kamikaze UAV is a far cry from the primitive, partially constructed, 3D-printed UAV which lead a UK court to jail its constructor. Much more was obviously made of his encrypted online contacts with ISIS and his intent to inflict potential death and destruction on behalf of a terrorist group.


On a far brighter note, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project known as Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE), which first went out to industry for proposals back in 2021, has now moved into Phase 3 build and manufacture following a successful Phase 2 Critical Design Review (CDR).

Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing Company subsidiary, has been authorized to begin building a 7000 lb X-wing manned/unmanned aircraft. The aircraft is intended to prove out a design for aerodynamic control without the use of moving surfaces.

Illustration of proposed X-Wing aircraft (Image: DARPA)

Illustration of proposed X-Wing aircraft (Image: DARPA)

Elevators, flaps, slats and rudders on conventional modern aircraft require significant internal hydraulics and/or cabling and actuators throughout the airframe, which add to the complexity, and potential failure modes, aerodynamic drag and weight. Most current UAVs emulate these flight control systems and use external control surfaces.

The DARPA X-Wing aircraft may use compressed air jets or even electrical discharges emitted at critical actuation points along its outer surface to ‘gently push’ the aircraft from its existing path through the airstream, which allows the remote pilot to maneuver the aircraft. Known as Active Flow Control (AFC) this technology has been prototyped to one extent or another in recent years, but this DARPA/Aurora project aims to prove the concept.

For the demonstration aircraft, normal moving control surfaces will be installed and retained. The aircraft will initially be flown using these standard airflow controls to form a baseline for how the aircraft performs. The control surfaces will then be locked down and the aircraft will be flown using AFC, and the performance will be compared to the standard controls baseline.

Understandably, the earlier phases of the project likely worked through the required control systems for the unique X-wing configuration. Aurora may have been well positioned to provide such flight control systems, autopilot and software from its store of Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GNC) technology — the basis for the operation of autonomous air vehicles.


Building illicit UAVs intended for terrorism may not be one of the best academic projects to undertake when you’re an ISIS supporter; Russia and Ukraine appear to be in a race to mass produce ever more sophisticated UAVs; and DARPA/Aurora appear to be headed to a relatively heavy prototype air vehicle demonstrating not only X-Wing technology, but also active flight control. Overall, there is a variety of news on UAVs in various configurations and applications.

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About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).