DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah — The killer drone whooshed out of its launch tube, spreading its carbon wings and shooting into the sky. Flying too fast for the naked eye to track, the battery-powered robot circled the Utah desert, hunting for the target it had been programmed to strike. Moments later, the drone sailed through the driver’s side window of an empty pick-up truck and exploded in a fireball. “Good hit,” exclaimed an operator from AeroVironment, the company that produces the drone and sells it to the U.S. military. NBC News traveled to a military testing center for exclusive access to the first-ever public demonstration of the Switchblade 300, a small, low-cost “kamikaze” drone made by AeroVironment that sources say has been used quietly for years by the U.S. military in targeted killing operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The demonstration told a story of promise and peril. Americans have become accustomed to images of Hellfire missiles raining down from Predator and Reaper drones to hit terrorist targets in Pakistan or Yemen. But that was yesterday’s drone war. A revolution in unmanned aerial vehicles is unfolding, and the United States has lost its monopoly on the technology. An Aerovironment operator prepares to launch the Switchblade drone at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground. NBC News Some experts believe the spread of these semi-autonomous weapons will change ground warfare as profoundly as the machine gun did. They can leapfrog traditional defenses to strike infantry troops anywhere on the battlefield, and they cost just $6,000 apiece compared to $150,000 for the Hellfire missile typically fired by Predator or Reaper drones. That capability could help save the lives of American troops, but it could also put them — and Americans at home — in great danger from terrorists or nation states that haven’t previously had access to such lethal and affordable technology. “I think this is going to be the new IED,” said Shaan Shaikh, a missile expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s something that we can see that is going to be a problem, and we have some defenses, but not enough.” Dubbed kamikaze, suicide or killer drones, these unmanned aircraft don’t fire missiles — they are the missiles. But unlike typical missiles, they can circle above a target, wait for the ideal moment, and strike with incredible precision. The U.S. military could not have fought the way it did in Iraq or Afghanistan if the enemy had killer drones. America’s next battlefield opponent is likely to have them. And terrorists will eventually get them, too — a possibility that has homeland security officials scrambling to find a solution, given that there is no surefire defense against them. “There are over 100 countries and non-state groups that have drones today, and the technology is widely proliferating,” said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger, scholar at the Center for a New American Security and author of “Army of None,” a book about autonomous weapons. “It levels the playing field between the U.S. and terrorist groups or rebel groups, in a way that's certainly not good for the United States.” Today’s small lethal drones are difficult to detect on radar and can even be programmed to hit a target without human intervention, based on facial recognition or some other computer wizardry. And, while billions of dollars are being spent at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to come up with “counter drone” technology, experts say there is, as yet, no foolproof version of it. Brought into battle in a backpack Weighing just five and a half pounds including its small warhead, the Switchblade can be brought into battle in a backpack and can fly up to seven miles to hit a target. The 300 model is designed to kill individuals, while a larger version, the 600, can destroy armored vehicles. AeroVironment is not yet allowed to show the bigger one to the public. They are called “Switchblade” because their blade-like wings spring out on launch. “It allows our warfighter to have a battlefield superiority, which our enemies can't see, can't hear, can't tell it's coming, and really precisely achieve a specific mission effect,” said Wahid Nawabi, AeroVironment’s Afghan-born CEO. Nawabi said he’s been told the Taliban and others who have been on the receiving end refer to it as an angry bird or a buzzing bee. Public procurement data shows that the Switchblade 300 costs a fraction of each Hellfire missile’s price tag, let alone the total cost of keeping Reaper drones in the air, flown by pilots in Nevada. The Switchblade has a feature that allows the operator to adjust the blast radius, so that it can kill the driver of a vehicle but not the passenger, for example. The weapon can be “waved off,” up to two seconds before impact, AeroVironment says, in the event of a mistake or risk to civilians. That wave-off capability is notable in light of the catastrophe in September, when the mi . . . read the full article here.