Army buys $100 million fleet of small drones to protect soldiers on battlefield
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Army buys $100 million fleet of small drones to protect soldiers on battlefield

Bird-sized drones that can hover over a battlefield feeding vital intelligence will become the norm for Australian soldiers going into combat under a $100 million upgrade.

The Army will buy a fleet of the 1.3-kilogram drones, which have a wingspan of less than one metre and can fit into a backpack disassembled. They can be easily put together and flown ahead of a team of soldiers to send back colour and infrared images, looking over hilltops and other obstacles.

Australian Army soldier Corporal Doug Coombs prepares to launch a Wasp AE drone.

Australian Army soldier Corporal Doug Coombs prepares to launch a Wasp AE drone.Credit:Defence

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne and Defence Minister Marise Payne will announce the $101 million purchase on Thursday, continuing a military trend in which machines and software play an ever greater role on the battlefield.

They will initially buy US-designed WASP AE drones, but will tailor them to Australian needs using technology provided by firms in Melbourne and Canberra.

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The drones will allow soldiers to "see over the hill, around the corner and down the road", Senator Payne said in a statement given to Fairfax Media ahead of the launch.

Mr Pyne said the WASP had been successfully used by US Marines and other militaries around the world.

The government would not say how many drones were being purchased, but taking into account maintenance and additional costs such as controllers and communications links, the funding would likely buy at least 200 WASP drones.

It is understood every Australian combat team will have one of the drones once they are rolled out starting in the second half of 2018.

The WASP can fly at a range of up to five kilometres for nearly an hour. It is more robust than the Skylark drone previously used by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and has a much more sensitive camera.

"They provide our military with a faster and better understanding of the battlefield than our adversaries," Senator Payne said.

Mr Pyne said the purchase and ongoing maintenance would create 10 new jobs in Canberra and support more jobs in the supply chain. Australian firms XTEK, Sentient and Mediaware will make modifications to suit the Australian Army and do maintenance.

Defence will get a second generation of the drones – significantly upgraded – within the decade.

David Wroe is the defence and national security correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House