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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Editor’s Note: UAVs Are Rising

Bill Carey

They were not to be seen flying overhead, like the graceful, giant Airbus A380 or the versatile Bell/Agusta 609 tiltrotor, but UAVs nevertheless played a prominent role this year at the Paris Air Show.

From the AeroVironment Wasp, neatly packaged in a briefcase, to Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, with the wingspan of a Boeing 737, UAVs were peppered about the exhibits and static displays at Le Bourget. Israel’s Elbit Systems hosted a veritable theme park of UAVs, displaying its Skylark I hand-launched and larger, rail-launched Skylark II air vehicles, a mock-up of the new Hermes 900 and the CoMPASS electro-optical payload developed for the U.K. military’s Watchkeeper program, which is based on the Hermes 450. Nearby, Israel Aerospace Industries promoted the I-View Mk 50 and Mk 250 air vehicles, the twin-boom Heron and Heron TP and its MOSP, POP 300 and Mini POP payloads.

While Boeing and Airbus announced orders, UAV contractors jockeyed for position. Alenia Aeronautica, Dassault Aviation and Saab AB signed a letter of intent "to expand and intensify" their cooperation on developing a Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAV serving European requirements, challenging a concept advanced by Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space. Thales, teamed with Elbit on the Watchkeeper program, allied with Dassault to pursue the French army requirement for a tactical UAV. They reportedly would adapt IAI’s turboprop Heron TP for the French Air Force.

DRS Technologies, Parsippany, N.J., was among a dozen companies exhibiting in the "UAV Pavilion" organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. There, I asked John R. Jackson, director of airborne systems business development with DRS Sensors & Targeting Systems, if interest in UAVs is "skyrocketing," mindful that I might be overstating things.

"I’d have to call it ‘skyrocketing,’ because most of the military commanders now have learned the value of UAVs. They don’t want to be without them," Jackson said. Militaries "are flying hundreds of thousands of flight hours on these UAVs now, in theater, far surpassing anything of manned aircraft, and it surprises even them."

Though disappointed by the postponement of the two relevant classes of the U.S. Army’s Future Combat System program, DRS still has delivered its Sentry and Neptune air vehicles. C.J. Vaughan, director of business development with DRS Unmanned Technologies, was guarded about the recipients. Neptune, a 130-pound gross takeoff weight UAV optimized for maritime operation, is a U.S. Special Operations Command program of record, he offered. Regarding Sentry, a larger, delta wing aircraft that has dropped antitank munitions in U.S. Air Force tests, "we can’t really go into too many details," Vaughan said.

UAVs are one of the few end products manufactured by DRS, which is more a component electronics supplier on a range of airborne, ground and naval platforms. The company knows something about sensors; since the mid-1970s, it has provided the sensor suite of the Mast Mounted Site atop the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout/attack helicopter. Among projects in the unmanned arena, it has developed the integrated payload for Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout rotary-wing UAV and supplied infrared cameras on the Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle.

What are UAV operators looking for in sensor payloads? "On the smaller payloads, the thrust is just getting more resolution," Jackson said. "You need more pixels on target because of all the friendly fire incidents. You start stepping up, the thing they want to add now is laser designators. As soon as somebody verifies that’s a bad guy, they can call in a strike."

With their myriad applications for intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance, not to mention missile delivery, UAVs make more and more sense for hazardous military missions. "Most of the money you put into an aircraft is to protect the pilot," says Yossi Ackerman, Elbit’s president and CEO, stating a simple but profound truth. Their many civilian uses — for border patrol, law enforcement, pipeline monitoring and whatnot — are only now taking shape. Of course, there is the small matter of integrating manned and unmanned aircraft in the airspace. "If you could ever figure out how to operate these things in civilian airspace, there’s a lot of applications," Jackson said.

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