On April 18 in New York City, a parking garage in lower Manhattan collapsed, killing one person—the garage’s manager, Willis Moore. Much of the media coverage surrounding that event focused on a robotic dog that the New York City Fire Department used on the scene, a mechanical quadruped painted like a dalmatian and named Bergh. But another robot explored the collapsed structure that spring day—an exceptionally tiny and quiet drone flown by militaries that looks exactly like a little helicopter.
It’s called the Black Hornet. It weighs less than 1.2 ounces, takes off from its operator’s hand, and streams back video to a screen so people can see what the drone sees and make decisions before approaching a structure that might have hostile forces or other hazards inside it.
Here’s how this 6.6-inch-long drone works, what it’s like to fly it, and how it was used that April day following the deadly structural collapse.
Popular Science received a demonstration of the drone on August 10, and had the chance to fly it, in a space on the ground floor of a New York City hotel near Central Park.
Rob Laskovich, a former Navy SEAL and the lead trainer for the Black Hornet with Teledyne FLIR, the company that makes the diminutive drone, explains that the drone’s low “noise signature” makes it virtually undetectable when it’s more than 10 feet away from people and 10 feet in the air. “It almost disappears,” he says. “And the size of this thing—it’s able to get into very tight corners.”
Because it’s so quiet and so maneuverable, the itty bitty drone offers a way to gather information about what’s in a space up to a mile away or further and stream that video (at a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels) over encrypted radio link back to the base station. This latest version of the Black Hornet also doesn’t need access to GPS to fly, meaning it can operate inside a building or in other “GPS-denied” spaces. It carries no weapons.
Laskovich removes one of the toy-sized Black Hornets from a case; there are three of them in this kit, meaning two can be charging while another one is flying. The drone has a nearly invisible wire antenna that requires a flick of the finger to make it hang out down off the back. The Black Hornet, he says, is “almost like a mini Black Hawk helicopter.” It is indeed just like a miniature helicopter; it has a top rotor to give it lift and a tail rotor to prevent it from spinning around in circles—the anti-torque system.
Mission control for the little bird involves a small non-touchscreen display and a button-filled controller designed to be used with one hand. Laskovich selects “indoor mode” for the flight. “To start it, it’s a simple twist,” he says, giving the Black Hornet a little lateral twist back and forth with his left hand. Suddenly, the top rotor starts spinning. Then he spins the tiny chopper around a bit more, “to kind of let it know where it’s at,” he says. He moves the aircraft up and down.
“What it’s doing, it’s reading the environment right now,” he adds. “Once it’s got a good read on where it’s at, the tail rotor is going to start spinning, and the aircraft will take off.” And that’s exactly what happens. The wee whirlybird departs from his hand, and then it’s airborne in the room. The sound it makes is a bit like a mosquito.
On the screen on the table in front of us is the view from the drone’s cameras, complete with the space’s black and white tiled floor; two employees walk past it, captured on video. A few moments later he turns it so it’s looking at us at our spot in a corner booth, and on the screen I see the drone’s view of me, Laskovich, and Chris Skrocki, a senior regional sales manager with Teledyne FLIR, standing by the table.
Laskovich says this is the smallest drone in use by the US Department of Defense; Teledyne FLIR says that the US Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force have the drone on hand. Earlier this summer, the company announced that they were going to produce 1,000 of these itty bitty aircraft for the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, who would send them to Ukraine, adding to 300 that had already been sent. Skrocki notes that a kit of three drones and other equipment can cost “in the neighborhood of about $85,000.”
Eventually Laskovich pilots the chopper back to him and grabs it out of the air from the bottom, as if he was a gentle King Kong grabbing a full-sized helicopter out of the sky, and uses the hand controller to turn it off.
The demonstration that Laskovich had conducted was with a Black Hornet model that uses cameras to see the world like a typical camera sensor does. Then he demonstrates an aircraft that has thermal vision. (That’s different from night vision, by the way.) On the base station’s screen, the hot things the drone sees can be depicted in different ways: with white showing the hot spots, black showing the heat, or two different “fuse” modes, the second of which is highly colorful, with oranges and reds and purples. That one, with its bright colors, Laskovich calls “Predator mode,” he says, “because it looks like the old movie Predator.”
Laskovich launches the thermal drone with a whir and he flies it away from our booth, up towards a red EXIT sign hanging from a high ceiling and then off towards an open kitchen. I watch to see what the drone sees via the screen on the table in front of me. He gets it closer and closer to the kitchen area and eventually puts it into “Predator mode.”
A figure is clearly visible on the drone’s feed, working in the general kitchen area. “And the cool part about it, they have no idea there’s a drone overhead right now,” he says. He toggles through the different thermal settings again: in one of the drone’s modes, a body looks black, then in another, white. He descends a bit to clear a screen-type installation that hangs from the ceiling over the kitchen area and pushes further into the cooking space. At one point, the drone, via the screen in front of me, reveals plates on metal shelving.
“There’s your serving station right there,” he says. “We’re right in the kitchen right now.” He notes that thanks to “ambient noise,” any people nearby likely can’t detect the aircraft. He flies the drone back to us and I can see the black and white tile floor, and then the drone’s view of me and Laskovich sitting at our table. He cycles through the different thermal settings once more, landing on Predator mode again, revealing both me and Laskovich in bright orange and yellow.
In a military context, the drone’s ideal use case, Laskovich explains, is to provide operators a way to see, from some distance away, what’s going on in a specific place, like a house that might be sheltering hostile forces. “It’s the ability to have real-time information of what’s going on on a target, without compromising your unit,” he says.
Eventually, it’s my turn to learn to fly this little helo. The action is all controlled by a small gray hand unit with an antenna that enables communication to the drone. On the front of the control stick are a bunch of buttons, and on the back are two more. Some of them control what the camera does. Others control the flight of the machine itself. One of them is a “stop and hover” button. Two of the buttons are for yaw, which makes the helicopter pivot to the left or right. The two on the back tell the helicopter to ascend or descend—the altitude control. The trick in flying it, Laskovich says, is to look at the screen while you’re operating the drone, not the drone itself.
I hold the helicopter in my left hand, and after I put the system in “indoor mode,” Laskovich tells me, “you’re ready to fly.”
I twist the Black Hornet back and forth and the top rotor starts spinning with a whir. After some more calibration moves, the tail rotor starts spinning, too. I let it go and it zips up out of my hand. “You’re flying,” Laskovich says, who then proceeds to tell me what buttons to press to make the drone do different things.
I fly it for a bit around the space, and after about seven minutes, I use my left hand to grab onto the bottom part of the machine and then hit three buttons simultaneously on the controller to kill the chopper’s power. And suddenly, the rotor and tail stopped spinning. The aircraft remains in my left hand, a tiny little flying machine that feels a bit like it flew out of a science fiction movie.
Flying this aircraft, which will hold a stable hover all on its own, is much easier than managing the controls of a real helicopter, which I, a non-pilot, once very briefly had the chance to try under the watchful tutelage of an actual aviator and former Coast Guard commander.
The garage collapse
On April 18, Skrocki was in New York City on business when he heard via text message that the parking garage had collapsed. He had the Black Hornet on hand, and contacted the New York Police Department and offered the drone’s use. They said yes, and he headed down to the scene of the collapse, and eventually sent the drone into the collapsed structure “under coordination with the guys there on scene,” Skrocki says.
He recalls what he saw in there, via the Black Hornet. “There were some vehicles that were vertically stacked, a very busy scene,” he says. “It just absolutely appeared unstable.” When the flight was over, as Skrocki notes on a post on LinkedIn that includes a bit of video, he landed the drone in a hat. The Black Hornet drone doesn’t store the video it records locally on the device itself, but the base station does, and Skrocki noted on Linkedin that “Mission data including the stills/video was provided to FDNY.”
Besides the robotic dog, the FDNY has DJI drones, and they said that they used one specific DJI model, an Avata, that day for recon in the garage. As for the Black Hornet, the FDNY said in an emailed statement to PopSci: “It was used after we were already done surveying the building. The DJI Avata did most if not all of the imagery inside the building. The black hornet was used as we had the device present and wanted to see its capabilities. We continue to use the DJI Avata for interior missions.” The FDNY does not have its own Black Hornet.
Beyond military uses, Skrocki says that the Black Hornet can help in a public safety context or with police departments, giving first responders an eye on a situation where an armed suspect might be suicidal or have a hostage, for example. The drone could provide a way for watchers to know exactly when to try to move in.
In New York state, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office has a Black Hornet set that includes three small aircraft. And Teledyne FLIR says that the Connecticut State Police has the drone, although via email a spokesperson for that police force said: “We cannot confirm we have Black Hornet Drones.”
The New York City Police Department has controversially obtained two robotic dogs, a fact that spurred the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union to tell The New York Times in April: “And all we’re left with is Digidog running around town as this dystopian surveillance machine of questionable value and quite potentially serious privacy consequences.”
Stuart Schrader, an associate research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Africana Studies, highlights the potential for military-level technology in civilian hands to experience a type of “mission creep.”
“It seems quite sensible to not put humans or [real] dogs in danger to do the [parking garage] search, and use a drone instead,” Schrader says. “But I think that the reality is what we see with various types of surveillance technologies—and other technologies that are dual-use technologies where they have military origins—it’s just that most police departments or emergency departments have very infrequent cause to use them.” And that’s where the mission creep can come in.
In the absence of a parking garage collapse or other actual disaster, departments may feel the need to use the expensive tools they already have in other more general situations. From there, the tech could be deployed, Schrader says, “in really kind of mundane circumstances that might not warrant it, because it’s not a crisis or emergency situation, but actually it’s just used to potentiate the power of police to gain access for surveillance.”