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FireFly Loitering Munition Combat Drone

The lightweight loitering munition FireFly gives an operator up to 1.5 kilomters of line-of-sight use and 500 meters non-line-of-sight use...

The lightweight loitering munition FireFly gives an operator up to 1.5 kilomters of line-of-sight use and 500 meters non-line-of-sight use. (Rafael Advanced Defense Systems)
A loitering munition is a hybrid offspring of cruise missiles and combat tactical drones. It is all-in-one as a grenade with rotors, a bomb with wings. FireFly is loaded to make a bad day for the enemy down the line. Israel’s Ministry of Defense has deployed the FireFly, a lightweight loitering munition designed for infantry and special forces. Jointly developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and the MoD, FireFly’s canister-deployed design with multiple rotors enables it to hover around buildings and attack concealed enemies that may be beyond line of sight or hiding in urban environments.

In terms of size and function, the Firefly is essentially a longer-range, more accurate grenade.
Like a grenade, the point of the Firefly is to put an explosion somewhere immediately useful but far from the person launching it. The flying bomb can travel up to 1,600 feet in an urban setting and almost 3,300 feet in open terrain, traveling at a speed of 36 mph. The Firefly’s explosive payload, a 350 gram “omnidirectional fragmentation warhead,” contains almost twice as much explosive as the standard M67 Fragmentation Grenade used by the U.S. military.

The actual device, which resembles nothing so much as an oversized electronic vape pen, includes a set of cameras suspended beneath the explosive payload, which sits beneath the two coaxial rotors. It features retractable landing gear, and can be disarmed remotely by the human operator, allowing the drone to fly as a scout, ready to blow a person up, or return safely for recharging if no suitable targets are found. Should the mission need scouting more than explosions, a second battery can replace the explosive payload and double the Firefly’s flight time, from 15 minutes to 30 minutes.

It hovers and looks like a black stick floating in the sky but can slam into an enemy at seventy kilometers an hour. The Firefly is Israel’s latest weapon to be acquired by the Israeli Ministry of Defense from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. It will be deployed with infantry and is specially designed for soldiers fighting in urban areas, giving them the ability to fly a hovering missile around buildings to accurately take out terrorists or enemy forces.
Besides direct human control, Rafael says the drone can fly autonomously by pre-set waypoints, though it is unclear if the Firefly will detonate without human direction. Like other small drones, there’s a possibility that the Firefly can be mounted, launched, and operated from other vehicles, essentially giving armored personnel carriers robotic scouts that can explode on contact with the enemy. It’s a collection of novel features in a tight, deadly package.

Rafael promises that the Firefly has revolutionary potential, saying in a promotional PDF it will “make obsolete the old infantry tactic of firing and maneuvering to eliminate an enemy hiding behind cover.” Such predictions have been made countless times in the sales pitches for new weapons. One even dates as far back as the Kettering Bug, the 1918 aerial torpedo ancestor to both cruise missiles and drones. The impact is there, but unless loitering missiles become as abundant as buildings and boulders, don’t expect cover to lose any value anytime soon.

That puts the Firefly on the smaller end of loitering munitions, in part thanks to the advances in compact electronics over the past several decades. The first loitering munition, revealed in 1990, was the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Harpy, a winged missile designed to hunt anti-aircraft radar stations, and then finding one, arm itself and dive down, destroying it.

Firefly ammunition can deliver a precision strike on enemy troops hiding within a range of one km. The latest Firefly ammunition not only has loitering capability to locate a target but also can be called back if the target has moved beyond range.

FireFly is designed to fulfill a need that platoons and smaller units have on the modern battlefield for an unmanned system that is rugged and lightweight. Mini-UAVs are increasingly in demand for infantry use, and the ability to combine them with loitering munitions that can conduct surveillance and attack has become the next step for ground forces. 

The press of a button on the FireFly operator’s tablet can release a warhead to slam into an enemy at up to 70 kph. (Rafael Advanced Defense Systems)
FireFly was designed over the last 15 years based on sketches produced as far back as the Six-Day War, when Israeli soldiers had to fight in the early morning amid trenches in Jerusalem during the Battle of Ammunition Hill. Also taken into account during the design period were Israel’s experiences fighting militants in close combat in urban areas, such as the Gaza Strip, as well as knowledge of the difficulties armies have faced in fighting in places like Mosul, Iraq, against the Islamic State group. 

Gal Papier, director of business development at Rafael’s Tactical Precision Weapons Directorate, said the current FireFly model has a seeker, warhead and data link with electro-optical features that are similar to Rafael’s larger Spike missile family. The Spike group of munitions includes precision-guided tactical missiles. The main difference is the addition of dual rotors so the FireFly can hover and remain stable in windy environments.

“It’s a different way of looking at missile guidance,” Papier said. “This is innovative and new — it’s a missile that folds into a small canister.” First unveiled in 2018, Papier foresees the FireFly as “infantry’s best friend,” enabling forces to both scout and attack. The warhead is small, coming in at only 400 grams, but Rafael says it is lethal enough for infantry and special forces missions.

“Normally the targets are insurgents or suppressing machine guns or a sniper,” Papier explain, comparing the FireFly to UAVs that carry 20-kilogram payloads and must be launched by catapult. FireFly gives an operator up to 1.5 kilometers of line-of-sight use and 500 meters of non-line-of-sight use. It can return to the user with the click of a button, and its technology provides situational awareness to avoid collisions with obstacles. 

It can also operate during the day or night with a low acoustic signature. Its battery and warhead can both be replaced; the warhead can be swapped for another battery to provide double the 15-minute flying time for surveillance missions. The press of a button on the operator’s tablet causes the warhead to slam into an enemy at up to 70 kph.

Mission Aborted

It is also designed with safeguards, such as an abort capability. Rafael also foresees the FireFly launched from vehicles, with several units contained in a pod or “beehive” that would operate from inside the vehicle. This is in line with the increased use of smaller tactical UAVs with armored vehicles, and future battlefield concepts that foresee vehicles and infantry units operating in sync with numerous drones. “We are in [the] design stage of these pods, tailored for different vehicles. We see it as a building block,” Papier said.

Israel’s procurement of the FireFly and its deployment with infantry units are part of the country’s multiyear plan to restructure its armed forces, known as “Momentum.” The plan also calls for increased digitization of land forces and for units to have access to more UAVs and technology. This is meant to bring intelligence assets as far forward as possible to battalion- and company-level units sharing information gathered by UAVs on a network.

Papier noted that the increased deployment of loitering munitions like this will change infantry units as they decide how to make soldiers into dedicated drone operators