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05 May 2015

AUVSI 2015: Unmanned Aerial Systems Are Expected to Become More Prevalent

Gen. (Ret.) Michael V. Hayden, who directed both the NSA and CIA, once noted: “We are now in an age in which our principal adversary is easy to kill, he’s just very hard to find.” The Western way of warfare characterised by stand-off precision effects, minimisation of collateral damage, and risk avoidance when it comes to own troops, combined with an often elusive enemy, has led to a growing requirement for ISR. Although in no way new, UAS are now thoroughly embedded in military thinking. They have now reached such a level of technological maturity that they have become critical enablers of today’s manoeuvre warfare, unlike the 20th Century unmanned systems (UnSys) that were limited to target acquisition for deep artillery strikes or target representation. Increasingly armed due to the miniaturisation of precision guided munitions (read here), UAS’ unique attributes of persistence and extensive sensor payloads have made them a critical tool for the “dull, dirty and dangerous” tasks of monitoring potential targets and rapidly striking fleeting high value opportunities either terrorist or insurgent. However, like manned systems, their costs need to be kept in check while they have sometimes proven vulnerable to electronic attack. Initially, UAS suffered from high loss rates while they continue to require large amounts of bandwidth. Despite the fact that some of the advantages of UAS, such as lack of complexity and cost are disappearing with costs converging with those of manned systems, it appears that no self-respecting military can do without UAS and it is expected that they will become more prevalent.

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has integrated Rafael's RECCE-U payload into the HERON UAV, creating a breakthrough, according to the company, as operational capabilities, traditionally perceived as a mission for fighter aircraft only, can now be performed by HERON, including wide-area scanning and mapping, automatic change-detection and motion-detection. (Photo: IAI)

Aiming to be the most innovative user of UAS by seamlessly integrating them into operations across all domains, the US is ahead of most nations when it comes to developing and procuring such systems. However, other, often non-Western nations are catching up with a flurry of activity occurring in Iran, Pakistan, South Korea, and Turkey for instance. As a result, by 2023, Forecast International expects the dominant manufacturer to be China’s AVIC.

Class I Air Vehicles

Hand launched, portable micro and mini UAS (mUAS) are relatively cheap Line-of-Sight (LOS) systems that are respectively smaller than 2kg, or weigh 2-20 kilogrammes. Normal mission radius for a micro UAS would be up to 5km with the system typically operated at squad or platoon level. With a radius of up to 25km and a ceiling of some 3,000ft, mUAS fitted with EO/IR cameras are often operated at battalion level by a reconnaissance platoon for instance.

Used by the British military, PD-100 BLACK HORNET is touted by ProxDynamics as being, “the first airborne and commercially available personal reconnaissance system.” With a mass of a mere 18g including cameras, this nano UAV has a digital data link (DDL) LOS range of around 1500 meters and an endurance of up to 25 minutes. During AUSA 2014, ProxDynamics unveiled the PD-100T that has an integrated thermal and daylight camera with fused imagery, hereby providing low light capability. An upgrade from the original Block I, the PD-100 Block II features enhanced wind performance and enhanced EO cameras.

Thales’ Spy Arrow micro UAS is reportedly in use with French SOF units while Oto Melara’s foldable HORUS system can be launched from a 120mm smoothbore tank gun or a custom launching system. This was shown on an Iveco CENTAURO VBM FRECCIA Explorer vehicle during Eurosatory 2014. Notable micro VTOL solutions include Datron Aeryon Labs SCOUT and SKY RANGER, BCB’s SQ-4, EMT’s FANCOPTER, Physical Science Inc.’s (PSI) INSTANTEYE Mk-2 Gen 3, and Selex ES’ SPYBALL-B. AirRobot’s digital AR100B is meanwhile used by the German military as the MIKADO.

AR100-B (Photo: AirRobot)

AeroVironment vs. Elbit

Following procurement by the US, AeroVironment’s RAVEN mUAS was acquired by many Western Armed Forces through fast track procurement to support operations in Afghanistan. Aerovironment now hopes to capitalise on this success by offering the DDL family of WASP AE, RAVEN and PUMA AE UAVs that use a common GCS. Lockheed Martin’s DESERT HAWK III mUAS remains in use with the British Army, while the French military currently operates the Airbus Defence & Space (DS) TRACKER mUAS under the name DRAC. The German Army uses the EMT ALADIN, while a so-called ALADIN Twin appears to be in development.

Controling SKYLARK I LE (Photo: Elbit Systems)

Like AeroVironment, Elbit Systems has had considerable success with its SKYLARK 1 and 1LE mUAS with customers including Israel, Australia, Canada, France, and Poland. The larger and heavier SKYLARK II cannot be launched by hand, having a mission radius of 50-60km, which puts it in the small tactical UAS (STUAS) category mentioned below. Likewise, ordered by Finland, Aeronautics’ ORBITER II is a mUAS whereas the larger ORBITER III fits in the same category as SKYLARK II. Israel’s BlueBird Aero Systems also has a range of UnSys, mainly in the micro and mUAS categories, and so do Innocon and Top I Vision, both also from Israel.

Other mUAS include Alpi Aviation’s STRIX-C that is in use with the Italian Army and Selex ES’ CREX-B, also from Italy. Portugese Tekever that now also has an office in the UK, also offers various mUAS. Likewise, Russia’s Enics, Zala Aero Group, and Irkut have a wide range of mUAS solutions. Mini VTOL systems include Honeywell’s RQ-16 T-HAWK, Selex ES’ ASIO-B, SurveyCopter’s COPTER 1B, ELI Airborne Solutions’ ELIX family, and the SkyWatch HUGINN X1 quadcopter system.

Sky-Watch HUGINN X1 quadcopter system. (Photo: Sky-Watch)

Small Tactical UAS (STUAS) 

Weighing 20-150kg, STUAS generally fly at up to 5,000ft, have a mission radius of up to 50 m and are typically operated at brigade level. As result, these systems carry more advanced EO sensors when compared to smaller UAVs in Class I. Unveiled during Euronaval 2014, Insitu’s SCANEAGLE 2 features a new propulsion system by Orbital with gasoline or heavy fuel variants, enhanced navigation and an Ethernet-based architecture. The latter can accommodate more advanced payloads borrowed from the NIGHTEAGLE configuration and enabled by the new air vehicle’s increased payload power of 100-150W. The SCANEAGLE’s nosebay houses the Alticam Vision imaging system that can be customised to include the EO900 turret that has a staggering 170x dcontinuous zoom. Called RQ-21 BLACKJACK by the USMC, Insitu’s new, larger INTEGRATOR has a reconfigurable payload bay with six spaces. All Insitu UAS share a common GCS as well as a common launcher and the patented SKYHOOK retrieval system that together also enable operations at sea, even from riverine patrol craft.

Engineered for simplicity and expeditionary use, Insitu’s Common Open-mission Management C2 (ICOMC2) ground station is a small-footprint system that operates from a laptop or soldier-worn device. The core features a fully supported Software Development Kit (SDK) that easily expands the system to fit operational needs and system-specific requirements. The system can also scale up to effectively operate on large screens with several displays, providing larger audiences with an integrated picture of the area of operation. (Photo: Insitu)

From Germany, EMT’s LUNA is in use with the German army. The latest version of LUNA is the heavier LUNA NG that like INTEGRATOR features a reconfigurable payload bay that can carry EO/IR sensors, SAR, SIGINT and/or CBRN sensors. Other small UAS in this weight class include Textron Unmanned Systems’ AEROSONDE Mk4.7, part of the company’s modular fleet of Mark 4 UAS, Arcturus’ T-20, Lockheed Martin’s FURY, and Northrop Grumman’s BAT. In Russia, Transas offers the DOZOR family of STUAS weighing 50-600 kilogrammes.

Class II Tactical UAS (TUAS) 

Tactical UAS (TUAS) employed by tactical formations (division level) are sizeable assets weighing up to 600kg and operating at up to 10,000ft above ground level. Such systems have a normal LOS mission radius of some 200km depending on local terrain conditions. Payloads typically include multi-functional EO/IR sensor pods with small precision guided munitions (PGM – see box further on) being optional. With the SHADOW M2 under development, Textron Unmanned Systems’ RQ-7B SHADOW is in use with the US Army and USMC, Australia, and Sweden. In the US, L-3 Unmanned Solutions’ VIKING 400 is also in production.

SHADOW M2 is the next generation of our proven SHADOW 200 TUAS. Building on that success, the SHADOW M2 adds new features for even greater mission capability and performance. (Photo: Textron)

Fitted with the Sagem EUROFLIR 350 EO/IR sensor payload, the French Army recently inducted a number of Sagem SPERWER MkII with digital datalink into service to increase its depleted fleet of TUAS. The French Army currently has a requirement for a new UAS that will replace SPERWER. Although a little large, Sagem’s PATROLLER UAS is one of the contenders together with Thales’ WATCHKEEPER, a variant of Elbit Systems’ HERMES 450. After some delay, WATCHKEEPER is now in use with the British military and has been deployed to Afghanistan, it was revealed in September. Now evolved into the FALCO Evo, Selex ES’ UAS has been exported to Pakistan, while the Italian TUAS is also reported to have been delivered to Saudi Arabia.

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Malat’s proven SEARCHER has been used by some 14 nations, another TUAS from Israel being Aeronautics’ AEROSTAR. In South Africa, Denel Dynamics’ markets the SEEKER family, the 400 variant of which first flew in February 2014. Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) has its NIGHT INTRUDER 300, while in India, the DRDO is developing the indigenous NISHANT and RUSTOM I tactical UAVs. After reports of a crash in January, it now appears that China’s CASC CH-3 or CH-3A tactical UAV has not only been exported to Pakistan but also to Nigeria. Demonstrating China’s growth as a UAV exporting nation, Xi’an ASN Technology’s ASN-209 is also being produced in Egypt.

VTOL solutions in this particular segment include Schiebel’s CAMCOPTER S-100 that is operated by the UAE and Jordan amongst others. It has also been tested by most European Navies. Other rotary wing UAS include CybAero’s APID-60, Airbus DS’ TANAN, which is based on a CybAero airframe, Indra’s PELICANO, and Saab’s SKELDAR family. Meanwhile, in Russia, Kamov appears to be working on various rotary wing TUAS.

To design and develop the long endurance PATROLLER drone, Sagem relied on its key technologies such as flight control, inertial navigation, optronic systems, avionics, onboard electronics, and secure transmission of data and images. (Photo: Pieter Bastiaans)

Operational, Strategic Intelligence Gathering

Featuring Beyond LOS (BLOS) mission radius by adding SATCOM, MALE UAS tend to operate at the operational, theatre level while HALE systems are tasked with collecting intelligence at the strategic or national level. While MALE UAVs operate at up to 45,000ft, the larger, more expensive strategic systems fly even higher, typically at up to 65,000ft and are generally only procured by global or regional powers. Together with MALE and HALE systems, UCAVs such as Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 SENTINEL form what NATO calls class III unmanned aircraft that weigh more than 600 kilogrammes. Capable of wide area surveillance, such systems are configured with a combination of high end EO/IR sensors, multi-mode radars, SAR/GMTI, communications relay, SIGINT, AIS, and weapons.

Adcom Systems UNITED-40 MALE UAV at IDEX 2015. (Photo: Pieter Bastiaans)
Tasked with providing 65 MQ-1/9 combat air patrols, the USAF is currently transitioning to an all MQ-9 fleet. Building on experience gained with the MQ-1 PREDATOR A, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ (GA-ASI) MQ-9 REAPER or PREDATOR B is much heavier, having a main take-off weight (MTOW) of 4763 kilogrammes. As result, MQ-9 has an internal payload of 385kg while an impressive 1,361kg can be carried externally. The unarmed PREDATOR XP is meanwhile aimed at foreign sales, for instance in the MENA region while the stealthy AVENGER or PREDATOR C remains a company testbed for now. The US Army continues to operate the Northrop Grumman MQ-5B HUNTER while it is receiving an increasing number of GA MQ-1C GRAY EAGLE UAVs.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ (GA-ASI) MQ-1C GRAY EAGLE UAV (Photo: GA)

European MALE diversity

Most European countries operating the MQ-9 REAPER are looking for a follow on MALE UAS solution. Apparently aimed at the UK Scavenger requirement, the BAE Systems – Dassault effort to develop a new UAV under the TELEMOS programme, building on experience gained with BAE’s MANTIS now appears dead. Meanwhile, Airbus DS tries to do the utmost to keep its TALARION jet powered MALE UAV programme alive, recently having branded it into EuroMALE. In February, it was revealed that the Italian Air Force has committed itself to the P1HH HAMMERHEAD UAV derivative of Piaggio’s P180 as a follow on to the country’s REAPERs. Up to now, the Italian Air Force has ordered six HAMMERHEAD UAVs, expected to be delivered in early 2016. They will complement the service's existing ISR UAV fleet, which comprises five GA RQ-1 PREDATORs and six MQ-9 REAPERs. Also from Italy, Alenia Aermacchi’s SKY Y MALE UAV is meanwhile involved in the European MIDCAS programme. A result of a Spanish requirement, Airbus DS now has its ATLANTE MALE UAV, which first flew in February 2013. Based on the German Stemme S6 motorglider, Sagem’s PATROLLER MALE UAS solution is offered in three variants: PATROLLER-R, S and M, respectively for ground surveillance, maritime surveillance and homeland security purposes. However, despite its MTOW of 1,050kg which is comparable to GA-ASI’s PREDATOR A, Sagem has recently been trying to market PATROLLER as a TUAS, apparently in an effort to compete with WATCHKEEPER for the French Army’s requirement for a new UAS.

Denel Dynamics SEEKER II at UMEX 2015. (Photo: Pieter Bastiaans)

More MALE solutions

Selected by Brazil, Elbit’s HERMES 900 is already operated by Israel, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico. The Israeli built MALE UAS can be used for ground or maritime surveillance, SIGINT, communications relay and other tasks. Fellow Israeli company IAI now markets three MALE UAVs: The HERON, the heavier HERON TP that directly competes with GA-ASI’s MQ-9, and the latest Super HERON, which is a heavy fuel engined version that fits in between the two. IAI is in discussions with a number of potential customers for its Super HERON MALE UAV.

In Turkey, a total of ten ANKA MALE UAVs are on order. Turkish Aerospace Industries’ (TAI) ANKA bears a striking resemblance to Korean Air’s KUS-15 design that is expected to enter service with the South Korean military in 2018. Meanwhile, in the UAE, Adcom Systems is working on its UNITED-40 twin wing MALE UAV together with a series of other, mainly tactical designs.

In Russia, design bureau OKB Simonov, formerly known as Sokol, is working on the twin engined 5t ALTIUS-that which makes it comparable to REAPER, while Transas is involved in the single engined 1t INOKHODETS (BAK SD). Both are propeller driven MALE UAV programmes. Manufactured by AVIC, WINGLOONG’s future looks promising while in India, drdo’s Rustom 2 MALE UAV is on the drawing board.

VTOL solutions include Northrop Grumman’s latest MQ-8C which is based on the Bell 407 airframe while, in Russia, Mil appears to be working on an unmanned version of the Mi-34.

Persistent ISR

The USAF’s Northrop Grumman GLOBAL HAWK fleet consists of three variants: Block 20 Battlefield Airborne Communiations Node (BACN), Block 30 multi intelligence (EO/IR, SIGINT), and Block 40 with Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) AESA SAR/GMTI capability. Based on the Block 30 GLOBAL HAWK, the USN’s MQ-4C TRITON Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) programme is also gathering pace. First flown in May 2013, TRITON is fitted with 360° degree Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS) AESA radar, and the Raytheon Multi-Spectral targeting System (MTS) B EO/IR sensor pod that is also found on the MQ-9.

Germany has halted its EUROHAWK programme for five aircraft based on the RQ-4B Block 20. However, trials with the technology demonstrator aircraft that is fitted with the Airbus DS Integrated Signals Intelligence System (ISIS) package are to resume shortly. Germany is said to consider the MQ-4C platform as a possible alternative. Meanwhile, it is unclear how the troubles with EUROHAWK will affect plans by Germany to acquire four IMINT configured Block 40 GLOBAL HAWKs from 2018 onwards as a national contribution to NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme. In 2012, NATO committed itself to procuring five Block 40 GLOBAL HAWKs while South Korea has opted for Block 30 aircraft. Japan also appears to be interested in acquiring Block 30 Global Hawks.

Both powered by hydrogen burning engines, AeroVironment’s Global OBSERVER and Boeing’s PHANTOM EYE are aimed at increasing persistence of HALE UAVs. Likewise, Aurora Flight Sciences’ diesel engined ORION currently operating under a USAF Research Laboratory contract is designed to achieve an endurance that is measured in days rather than hours.

Future Unmanned Combat Aircraft

The Northrop Grumman X-47B successfully conducted a series of carrier trials in July 2013. Connected to the earlier Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) programme that was terminated in 2006, this Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) is specifically aimed at testing the fundamentals for a future Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft. Production UCLASS aircraft should have the range, persistence and survivability to operate deep in contested airspace, providing ISR and strike missions for US carrier strike groups. In a similar fashion, the NEURON (EUR), TARANIS (UK), SKAT (Russia), DARK SWORD, and WIND BLADE (both China) technology demonstrator programmes should pave the way for future UCAVs elsewhere around the world. The MiG design bureau is reported to be working on a new UCAV, the 5t GONSHCHIK. MiG apparently is also involved in the 20t OKHOTNIK programme, led by Sukhoi. Based on its YAK-130 jet trainer, Yakovlev has in the recent past promoted its 10t PRORYV family but this programme now appears to be cancelled.

Small tactical drone HUGINN X1 (Photo: SkyWatch)

SHADOW M2 is the next generation of Textron Unmanned Systems’ proven SHADOW 200 TUAS, adding new features for even greater mission capability and performance. (Photo: Pieter Bastiaans)

Pieter Bastiaans is a Netherlands based regular contributor to MT. 

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