The increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is no longer limited to the battlefield. Although continuing developments have been made to the operational capabilities of military aircraft, unmanned aircraft are increasingly being used in other security roles, including protecting borders and halting drug smugglers.
The Paris Air Show, held in June 2011 at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, France, demonstrated the latest technology within the field, including advanced maritime radars, exterior robotic arms and even large-hulled heavy-lift vehicles with potential medevac capabilities.
UK awaits Watchkeeper
Following an £800m contract awarded in July 2005, the Thales Watchkeeper aims to provide the British Army with a UAV capable of providing all-weather intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities whilst carrying a payload of around 150kg. The design of the UAV is based on the Elbit Hermes 450 UAV and uses a rotary Wankel engine to provide a typical endurance of around 11 hours.
The Watchkeeper completed its first UK flight in April 2010 and 54 UAVs have since been ordered, equivalent to the price of £15m per aircraft. Although the aircraft were originally due to enter service in June 2010, the programme has been met with a number of considerable delays as a result of the collaboration between Thales and Israel-based Elbit Systems.
The Watchkeeper aircraft is constructed by UAV Tactical Systems, established as a 51/49 joint venture by Elbit and Thales, with Elbit subsidiary UAV Engines building the rotary engines.
Because Elbit, an Israeli company, is listed as a majority shareholder, the programme has experienced difficulties in obtaining key components due to restrictions imposed by US export authorisation parties. As a result, the programme was faced with severe delays and the delivery date of the first aircraft has slipped to the end of 2011.
With increased delays and costs, coupled with the UK’s latest attempts to rein in its defence spending, collaboration with neighbouring allies to satisfy urgent UAV requirements was also on the agenda.
Collaboration for the future
A key focal point of discussion at the show was the possible collaboration over UAV projects, rather than splintered programmes across the world focusing on differing technologies. One such project heralded for its collaboration is the search for a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV, of which a mock-up was on display at the Paris Air Show.
The project is a collaboration between UK and French authorities, acting on the back of renewed military integration and collaboration between the two nations, and will primarily be used for surveillance purposes. With both UK and French forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, operational needs dictate the need for a common UAV platform.
Speaking at the show, French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet confirmed that UK and French forces will work on a joint study to draw up requirements for the acquisition, and although the programme would start off as bilateral, other partners could join at a later date.
Pressing operational requirements have led France to still consider the immediate purchase of a UAV, and Longuet refused to rule out the purchase of Reaper aircraft, long considered as a possible acquisition option for French forces.
Maritime variant proves popular
The maritime variant of the Reaper, the MQ-9 Guardian UAV, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, was also on display at the Paris Air Show.
Although the Reaper is used by the US Air Force, US Navy, CIA, US Customs and Border Authority, the Royal Air Force and Italian Air Force, the Guardian is used exclusively for border control at strategic points around the US.
The craft is equipped with a 950shp turboprop engine that allows the aircraft to carry up to 15 times more ordnance and cruise at speeds three times that of its predecessor, the MQ-1, and the UAV is also capable of flying pre-programmed routes autonomously.
Such aircraft are now the focus of the US Air Force and, as of March 2011, more pilots are being trained for advanced UAVs than any other single weapons system. The induction of the Reaper saw a definitive shift in tactic, moving away from an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) role to the Hunter-Killer UAVs. As of 2011, 48 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols were in force over Iraq and Afghanistan, a substantial rise from the 2007 figure of 18.
The world’s first fully operational maritime variant, the Guardian, was displayed at the Paris Air Show after it began operations as of April 2011. The Guardian is equipped with Raytheon’s SeaVue maritime radar, providing the UAV with its maritime surveillance capabilities. Three more are expected to be inducted by early next year, taking the total in service to ten.
US waiting to unleash Fury
The US has also given considerable backing to another UAS on display at Le Bourget, the Fury 1500 small tactical UAS. The craft has been designed to fulfil the nation’s requirements in Afghanistan and Iraq and to support the Sand Dragon, a lightweight unmanned aircraft carrying miniature dual-band radar.
Unlike other UAVs, the Fury utilises JP8 fuel, which allows the craft to significantly increase its performance and endurance. As such, it can stay in the air for over 16 hours and travel up to 1,500nm, reaching cruise speeds of 65-95kt and a dash speed of 116kt.
The craft is capable of carrying multiple payloads whilst supporting a wide array of missions. The craft’s power units are used to protect it from enemy jammers using its shielded avionics, while a low acoustic signature protects it from detection.
Unmanned and unconventional
A rather more unconventional usage for UAVs, away from the traditional surveillance or hunter-killer capabilities, comes with the AirMule, developed by Israel-based Urban Aeronautics.
The VTOL UAV concept promises to deliver cargo to the frontline or conduct medevac missions using its expansive hull and shielded rotors. The AirMule is powered by a 730shp turboshaft driving fore, with initial tests showing the vehicle can hover with precision in winds of up to 50kt.
Although still in early development and yet to undergo untethered flight tests, the Israeli Defence Force has indicated an interest in the vehicle. The addition of remotely operated robotic arms, as demonstrated at the Paris Air Show, could yet open up the vehicle to a vast array of uses outside of the military spectrum. The AirMule could be used to perform operations or repair missions that pose significant danger to manual workers, such as repairing downed power cables or covering exposed uranium rods in damaged nuclear reactors.