Loiter, Lock onto a Target and Launch!

Several future trends are emerging in the world of Unmanned Airborne Systems: loitering munitions, quadcopters and enhanced performance payloads
An eagle soaring high in the sky constantly looks for a target (prey). Once it has spotted its prey, it will swoop at a high speed and never let go, even if the target tries to escape or hide, until it has executed the attack and devoured its kill.

"We emulate nature in that way," say industry sources involved in the development and manufacture of loitering munitions, the relatively new and highly lethal category of unmanned airborne vehicles that depart on a mission but never return to base. They are designed to spot, identify, attack and kill – a UAV that is 100% warhead.

Dani Eshkar, VP of Aeronautics – which unveiled their K1 loitering UAV at the last Paris Air Show – explains the operational need: "When you launch a ballistic charge or a missile at a pinpoint target, the missile will hit the mark and destroy it. But what if the target in question disappears and hides – a target that has been visible suddenly disappears and pops up again, (what if the target is) a non-static target? This is consistent with asymmetrical warfare: an enemy detachment advances on foot or in a vehicle, hides and pops up again. A single person hides in dense vegetation or in the trees and suddenly pops his head up – the loitering missile will spot him, identify him and swoop in for the kill – just like an eagle. The thing about a loitering UAV is the fact that it waits for an opportunity, using a surveillance camera with a tracking feature, and then attacks by crashing onto the target."

The UVision Company takes this concept one step further. Their "Hero" loitering munition range belongs squarely on the future battlefield: a platform that maintains visual contact with the target ("Eyes on Target") and strikes when the opportunity presents itself, even if the target pops up for just a brief moment.

The next move forward will be made into the sea environment: UVision's CEO Yair Dubester told Israel Defense that they intend to unveil an unmanned surface vessel designed to launch small loitering munitions, as well as an unmanned ground vehicle capable of launching such munitions. "Launching loitering munitions from a naval surface vessel is a new concept. The Launching platform will not be sensitive to the motion of the waves, it will have neither a thermal nor an acoustic signature and launching will be possible even with the vessel pitching and rolling violently in rough sea conditions," says Dubester. The spearhead of UVision's loitering munition range is the Hero-120, which carries a 4.5 kg warhead. 

Most of the UAVs and MUAVs developed and manufactured in Israel (and used with tremendous success by IDF and foreign armed forces) belong to the category of vehicles that return home after completing their missions. The developers' doubts and concerns always focus on the same characteristics required of any unmanned vehicle: to remain airborne for the longest possible time and carry a payload that would include everything required for photo-surveillance, video, recording and communication – all in order to collect the maximum amount of intelligence within the shortest possible time to the highest quality standards and deliver it promptly, accurately and reliably to the users.

Tzvika Naveh of the Innocon Company had this to say: "Our Spider is a highly advanced UAV. Carried by a single trooper, it weighs 20 kg, has a payload with day and night (surveillance) capabilities and takes still photographs. It was designed for "over-the-hill" missions and has a robust construction and a quiet electrical motor. It can remain airborne for two hours at an altitude of 15,000 feet and has a range of about 10 kilometers. These are the requirements to be met by a tactical UAV operated by a single trooper on the battlefield." The Company has recently received an order for a modern UAV system from the Thai armed forces. The new system should be able to monitor the target area for more than 20 hours and feature automatic take-off and landing capabilities. Innocon is mainly involved in the development of software elements (control systems for unmanned vehicles, Micro-NAV navigation systems, GPS systems and software for ground control stations) for the platforms manufactured by the major industries.

UVision also focuses on UAVs/MUAVs for tactical and strategic applications. For example, their Hero-30, the smallest model in its category, carries a 0.5 kg warhead, has a speed of up to 100 knots, a total weight of 3 kg, a range of up to 4 km and an endurance of 30 minutes. It is a portable UAV operated by a single trooper. Conversely, their Hero-900 model was designed for strategic operations. It carries a 20 kg warhead, has an endurance of 7 hours and an exceptionally long range – up to 250 km.

The Blue Bird Company has recently unveiled an upgraded version of their Thunder-B UAV, which is a small platform offering the capabilities of a larger system. Itay Toren of Blue Bird: "The upgraded platform has carved a new niche in the small, tactical UAV category. It has an endurance of up to 24 hours, an extended range of 150 km, smart avionics and a diversified range of payloads, which can include a 3-axis gyro stabilizer and a laser pointer, along with the option of carrying two payloads." The Thunder-B UAV is operated by a team of two to three troopers. Launching is automatic, using a pneumatic catapult, and the UAV is recovered by means of a built-in parachute.

The UAS Technologies Company incorporates specialized technologies in its systems. For example, they use anti-icing systems in the event that their UAVs are to be employed under extreme weather conditions. They also offer servo motors and systems for landing their UAVs on board naval vessels. UAS Technologies flew their smallest UAV, UAS-20, for the first time in 2011. This UAV has a speed of 42 knots, a range of up to 100 kilometers and an endurance of 24 hours.

The Top I Vision Company supplies surveillance aerostats and their Casper-20 UAV to clients in Israel and around the world. CEO Nir Chantal told us: "There is a growing demand, worldwide, for our aerostats, mainly because of the payloads that offer new electro-optical and SigInt (Signals Intelligence) capabilities."

The Company's surveillance aerostats are in use by IDF and the specialist counterterrorist unit of the Israel Police, as well as for TV broadcasts. They were used during Independence Day events as well as during the visits of the Pope and the US President to Israel and in many other countries. The aerostat may be towed by a Jeep and the average height of the platform is about 100 meters. Nir Chantal believes that "In the field of UAVs everyone knows how to do everything. In order to succeed, however, you are tested by your business flexibility – whether you can fulfill the order in accordance with the client's requirements, and whether your delivery intervals are accurate and short – that is how you must operate under such fiercely competitive conditions as the ones that exist in our field of business in Israel."

The Steadycopter Company focuses on Rotary Unmanned Airborne Vehicles (RUAV) and develops the Black Eagle 50 RUAV for military and civilian applications. Their RUAV provides surveillance images of expansive, remote areas. The Company website explains that RUAVs are ideal for maritime missions. The major advantage of such platforms is their ability to take off and land from/on board naval vessels, reach high-risk areas, hover at a low altitude while using their sensors or fly at a high altitude while directing military forces or emergency services in natural disaster situations. The Steadycopter Company refused to provide any additional information about their developments.

Underground Tunnel Surveillance

Quadcopters are the latest trend in the field of unmanned airborne vehicles. Today, civilians can purchase small, compact quadcopters for photographic purposes. Larger platforms are suitable for both military and civilian applications. The Flying Production Company offers the Da Vinci multi-rotor hexacopter – a short-range surveillance system for over-the-hill missions on the battlefield as well as for use in disaster areas and in agricultural applications. Ofir Zikri of the Flying Production Company reveals that the Company has recently embarked on the development of a small, smart vehicle with multiple capabilities that would provide a solution for the subterranean challenge, namely – underground tunnel surveillance. The 6-motor Da Vinci hexacopter has recently been provided with new, secure operation capabilities: navigation without GPS, encrypted communication and enhanced survivability under extreme field conditions. Ofir Zikri had this to say about their method of operation: "The hexacopter will follow a predetermined flight plan to the target, hover above it, the surveillance camera will be activated with GPS support, and at the conclusion of the mission the vehicle will fly home and land." In many countries, the hexacopter is licensed to fly beyond visual range. The Da Vinci hexacopter is used by the Israeli defense establishment as well as overseas, but no other details were provided.

Tethered hovering platforms are UAVs to all intents and purposes, except for the fact that they are tethered to a ground station or to a towing vehicle. The Hovermast platform by the Sky Sapience Company is used by IDF as well as overseas for military and civilian missions. Limor Barak, marketing manager at Sky Sapience, said: "We manufacture several models of the Hovermast platform, which transmits video in real time. We are currently developing a version that may be deployed over a naval vessel, as well as a low-cost civilian commercial version, without a payload, designed, for example, for guarding parks where rhinos are kept against illegal poachers." Barak said that the Company has recently signed a cooperation agreement with IAI for the joint development and manufacture of tethered hovering surveillance platforms, involving IAI's US-based subsidiary. The platforms are made of composite materials and are hermetically sealed. "The Hovermast is a platform that may be towed by a vehicle while it is airborne. It can be moved around while providing imagery from a level of dozens of meters. It can see many miles ahead, during the day and night, identify map references and provide surveillance support to troopers, vehicles and ground combat platforms." The cable linking the hovering platform with the towing vehicle supplies the platform with the energy it requires and contains the communication and data link. The platform is stabilized and the payload it carries may include surveillance cameras, a radar system, laser pointers, communication relaying systems, cellular communication antennae and hyper-spectral sensors. It can record ElInt and ComInt data – all according to the client's needs and requirements. Whereas it is not regarded as an airborne vehicle, it is not subject to any aviation regulations that restrict the use of UAS.

 

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