Unmanned, Persistent ISR

By Ron Stearns G2 Solutions | January 1, 2009
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The market for unmanned aircraft used in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions could reach $44.5 billion in the next decade

General Atomics’ RQ-1 Predator first flew as an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator in 1994. Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, an outgrowth of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program, first lifted off from Edwards Air Force Base in California in 1998. In the span of just 15 years these two Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and a host of others represent capability and concept of operations (CONOPS) mainstays for both the United States Department of Defense and militaries around the globe.

In DoD terms, 15 years can be a blink of an eye, which makes it all the more astounding that G2 Solutions forecasts a world market for unmanned persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) programs of $44.5 billion through 2019. The market has grown quickly from technology demonstrators to fielded and required capabilities. The forecast’s size is partly a function of ongoing actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there’s little question that demand for persistent ISR, although not always tied to metrics, is in excess of supply.

Defense demands for unmanned aircraft coverage have resulted in skyrocketing hours-flown statistics within the U.S. DoD alone, with 60,000 flight hours in 2004 soaring to more than 250,000 hours in 2007. UAS capabilities and CONOPS are ahead of a defense acquisition curve, meaning "rapid" fielding of new persistent ISR systems will still result in UAV shortages from an end-user standpoint. Pervasive UAS use is happening in spite of airspace deconfliction issues and varying UAV control philosophies because the persistent ISR capabilities they bring are unmatched. Persistent ISR will mean different things to different people; it was our task at G2 Solutions to put forth some criteria upon which UAS can be included or excluded in such a definition. The following characteristics were taken into consideration when forecasting individual UAS throughout the 2009-2019 forecast period:

  • Is it first and foremost a military system?

  • Is it designed first and foremost as an ISR asset?

  • Is the system fielded, or is it likely to be fielded by 2019?

  • Does an individual UAV have endurance equal to or greater than six hours?

  • What are the aircraft size parameters? (from ScanEagle to Global Hawk)

  • Will it operate mainly in low-to-medium threat environments?

  • Can it operate in both day/night conditions?

  • Is it subject to attrition, but not discardable?

With these questions and parameters in mind, G2 Solutions poured over hundreds of UAS to compile a list of more than 30 globally produced systems capable of meeting a majority of the aforementioned criteria.

Persistent surveillance is not meant to connote persistent stare over an entire theater. Rather, in its broadest terms, it is intended to imply an ability to detect, locate and track militarily important and time-sensitive targets. Once the target is identified, the UAS should be able to provide surveillance up to, until and after strike aircraft (manned or unmanned) are called upon to prosecute. Ideally, such a UAS will also play a vital role in assessment as well.

Major contracts contributing to the $44.5 billion market forecast are U.S. programs such as Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) and Future Combat Systems (FCS), the United Kingdom’s Watchkeeper program and the eventual winner of the United States Air Force’s Next Generation UAS. True, there will be international indigenously produced ISR UAS, and several will find customers over time, but U.S. DoD will remain the "anchor client" for persistent ISR assets throughout the forecast period.

The study breaks persistent ISR revenues into aircraft, sensors and ground control equipment, and incorporates these splits into the forward-looking forecasts.

Strike Capability

The integration of a strike capability by UAS, something General Atomics brought to the fore with Predator and Reaper, is a reality and an assumed given in the majority of tactical future UAS. What remains to be seen are system balances between ISR and strike.

At present, the tradeoff on persistence versus strike would appear to be significant. It is incumbent upon militaries to clearly define mission sets and CONOPS in order to provide the right aircraft with the right sensor and effects packages at the right time. Needless to say, this is easier said than done, especially in the face of an ever-changing target set.

Industry is looking to the Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS/Tier II) and the USAF’s Next Generation UAS as potentially the last two major UAS ISR programs for up to a decade.

STUAS/Tier II is envisioned as a joint U.S. Navy and Marine Corps program, with Boeing/Insitu as a de facto incumbent with the ScanEagle UAS. This is likely to be an owned asset, which will be a move away from the ScanEagle service model that currently exists. The most optimistic scenarios call for in excess of 4,000 aircraft throughout the initial production run. The RFP for this program has been delayed, and industry hopes it will drop in 2009. If this scenario plays out, an initial operating capability (IOC) of 2012-2013 remains a possibility, especially given the fact that the majority of bidding systems will be at a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 6 — a representative model of the system — or above. Additional interest from the Air Force and/or the Army is possible, which could change timelines, capabilities and costs.

More speculation surrounds the USAF’s Next Generation UAS, which notionally is intended to replace the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Predator B/Reaper. The pre-RFI released to industry last May at this writing was being reworked. The RFI rework should better define requirements, and perhaps allude to how this asset will contribute to CONOPS. Industry sources were doubtful of a 2015 IOC for this program unless the Air Force can put forth ironclad requirements in a 2009 document and ensuing competition.

Even an evolution of currently fielded capabilities will likely call for clean-sheet designs from envisioned offerors General Atomics, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and perhaps Lockheed Martin. G2 Solutions expects this to be a multibillion dollar acquisition program through 2019 and perhaps beyond.

Competitive Landscape

Not surprisingly, companies with early attention to UAS are leaders in G2 Solutions’ installed base value estimates. Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and AAI Corp. share a full 70 percent of the current $6 billion UAS in-inventory value (based on the persistent ISR definition). G2 Solutions’ research characterizes revenues at the integrator level, and this typically means the aircraft manufacturer. Sensor and avionics can account for more than 60 percent of program costs for a given UAS; this is especially true of larger, more sophisticated platforms.

Although not specifically credited with program revenues, companies like Raytheon, Rockwell Collins, Lockheed Martin and L-3 Communications can all be considered Tier 1 players within G2 Solutions’ definition of unmanned persistent ISR. Raytheon has a major presence in ground control and sensors across a broad array of unmanned systems, and had partnered with Swift Engineering, San Clemente, Calif., in pursuit of the STUAS/Tier II competition. Their proposal is based on Swift’s KillerBee UAS.

Rockwell Collins is very strong in tactical data links as well as Modular Open Systems Architecture (MOSA) which should assist the company as an array of electronics and sensor recompletes on existing unmanned systems continue over time. In addition, Rockwell Collins’ acquisition last April of Athena Technologies for $107 million should better position the company in the navigation and command and control (C2) niches.

L-3 Communications has a program presence on the RQ-4, MQ-1, ScanEagle and MQ-1C Sky Warrior, and will likely look to push its data links and throughput/latency capabilities across multiple current and future UAS.

Lockheed Martin technology demonstrators (e.g. DarkStar, Polecat) haven’t always led to a production UAS fitting within the persistent UAS definition. There is no question the company has the ability to focus and compete here, however. G2 Solutions expects Lockheed Martin to offer for both the USAF Next Generation UAS and STUAS/Tier II.

Honeywell can boast a wide array of applicable in-house capabilities not limited to: MEMS, GPS, vehicle management systems, full-authority digital electronic controls (FADEC), advanced turbine engines, avionics integration, communications management functionality and input/output computing interfaces.

In November, Honeywell announced the first production order for its T-Hawk micro air vehicle (MAV), a $65 million contract from the U.S. Navy for 90 systems of two vehicles and one ground station each.

The backpackable, ducted-fan MAV has been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Joint Explosive Ordnance Disposal task force, and is the basis of the Class 1 UAV of the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems program. A Block 2 design features a gimbaled sensor and electronic engine control.

FADEC and engine monitoring are likely to be the core strengths Honeywell can apply to current and future persistent ISR UAS.


Weight: 17 pounds (7.7 kg)

Altitude: +7,000 feet

Endurance: 40 minutes

Honeywell Aerospace on Nov. 4 announced the first production order for its T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV), a $65 million contract from the U.S. Navy.

Honeywell will supply 90 T-Hawk systems to the Navy, each consisting of two air vehicles and one ground control unit. The contract includes spares, training and field support. Deliveries begin in the second quarter of 2009.

The backpackable, ducted-fan T-Hawk is equipped with a video camera that relays information back to soldiers using a portable handheld terminal.

Begun as a DARPA-funded project ( Avionics, March 2007, page 28), the MAV has been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Joint Explosive Ordnance Disposal task force, and is the basis of the Class 1 UAV of the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems program. A civilian version of the aircraft was being evaluated by the Miami Dade Police Department in Florida.


Weight: 992 pounds (450 kg)

Payload: 330 pounds (150 kg)

Endurance: 17 hours

Thales U.K. in 2005 was awarded a £700 million contract from the U.K. Ministry of Defence to produce the Watchkeeper Tactical Unmanned Air Vehicle for the British Army Royal Artillery.

Watchkeeper is based on the Elbit Hermes 450 air vehicle. Production will be carried out by UAV Tactical Systems Ltd. (U-TacS), a joint venture of Elbit Systems and Thales U.K., in Leicester, England. Entry into service is planned in 2010.

Equipped with EO/IR sensors, synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator (SAR/GMTI) and laser designator, Watchkeeper will provide intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) in a networked environment. The U.K. military requirement reportedly is for 54 systems.

The first flight of the Watchkeeper platform as specified by the U.K. Ministry of Defence took place April 16, 2008, from Megido airfield in northern Israel. Automatic Take-Off and landing capability was demonstrated in August; flight trials began in November.

2008 Notable Developments

  • April 7, 2008: Rockwell Collins completes its acquisition of Athena Technologies, of Warrenton, Va., for $107 million, gaining expertise in embedded navigation and flight control and a presence on several platforms

  • April 16, 2008: First flight of the Thales Watchkeeper UAV, based on the Elbit Hermes 450 air vehicle, as specified by the U.K. Ministry of Defence. Originally budgeted at £700 million, Watchkeeper is described as Europe’s largest UAV program.

  • April 22, 2008: U.S. Navy awards Northrop Grumman a $1.16 billion contract for system development and demonstration of RQ-4N Global Hawk for Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) requirement.

  • Sept. 9, 2008: Boeing completes acquisition of Insitu, of Bingen, Wash., a transaction first announced July 22, as "part of a larger plan to aggressively grow our presence in the unmanned systems market," states Chris Chadwick, Boeing Military Aircraft president.

  • Nov. 4, 2008: Honeywell announces first production order for its ducted-fan T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle, placed by the U.S. Navy.


Gross Takeoff Weight: 32,250 pounds

Maximum Altitude: +60,000 feet

Maximum Endurance: 36 hours

Payload: 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg)

Northrop Grumman was awarded an 89-month, $1.16 billion System Development and Demonstration contract from the U.S. Navy for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program on April 22, 2008. A protest filed by Lockheed Martin with the Government Accountability Office was denied Aug. 8.

Lockheed Martin had proposed a version of the General Atomics’ Predator. Boeing also competed, offering an optionally manned Gulfstream G550 platform.

The chosen BAMS platform is the RQ-4N maritime derivative of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system, equipped with Northrop Grumman’s Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS), a 360-degree field-of-view active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar in a dome under the fuselage, and Raytheon’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System in a turret under the nose. The RQ-4N will have Navy-specific ground stations.

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