Will Israel's next generation of UAVs be cargo carriers, solar energy powered, or so tiny they'll be undetectable? The answer to these questions is yes! At least that's the direction Israel is taking—a world leader in unmanned aerial vehicles.
According to Israeli Air Force (IAF) statistics, UAVs carry out almost half of today's missions and major military campaigns (such as Operation Defensive Shield in January 2009), and intelligence gathering is one of the most developed activities Israeli UAVs perform. For example, Elbit Systems' Skylark-2, which became operational in late 2011, is now deployed in the south. The system is part of intelligence efforts to intercept attacks from the Sinai Peninsula.
Elbit is also working on a joint project with companies in England on advanced intelligence UAVs that are part of the British Army's Watchkeeper Project. The British based their model on Elbit's Hermes-450—a model that the IAF also use.
The IAF introduced Elbit's larger UAV, the Hermes-900, at the same time Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) released their Heron-class UAV. Inter-company competition is a positive phenomenon and motivates companies to produce superior products. However, sometimes, redundancy between models happens.
Armed (hunter-killer) UAVs are another area countries are focusig on, especially the US, as they use this model for combat in Afghanistan. According to foreign sources, the IAF also employ armed UAVs in Gaza (though Israel never acknowledged these reports). At the 2011 DSEi Exhibition (Defense and Security Equipment International) in London, Thales Group displayed a model of a missile-armed UAV (Elbit and Thales Group are partners in the Watchkeeper Project).
Given the direction of R&D, armed UAVs seem to be the next big thing. Several companies are adapting weapons systems and munitions to suit their UAVs. Sending a robotic vehicle into the air with lethal weapon systems is nothing short of a quantum leap in technological sophistication.
The face of warfare has changed. Kilometer-long tank columns and thousands of troops marching forward are scenes from the past. Today's battlefield is in urban terrains swarming with small groups of irregular forces that rapidly switch positions from hideouts to tunnels. This type of fighting demands new solutions, especially real-time intelligence. Front line commanders want to see inside the buildings where terrorists are holed up, and know exactly what is happening. How many times have soldiers dreamed of having "flies on the wall" so they could see what's taking place inside a house? In urban warfare, this dream is quickly becoming a reality with the small UAV (SUAV).
Israel is developing almost imperceptible, soundless mini-UAVs capable of flying through open windows and airshafts, and then transmitting pictures to a ground station. IAI calls these mini air vehicles "insects." The size of these insects is shrinking by the month as their sting becomes deadlier. This is the new generation of SUAVs, where small becomes mini, mini becomes micro, and concepts on the drawing board depict nano air vehicles (NAVs).
Israel is also taking the lead in this field. IAI's Malat plant is developing prototypes of a micro UAV called “Mosquito.” This micro bug is 30 cm in length, has a wingspan of 34 cm, weighs 250 gm, is equipped with sophisticated cameras, and is capable of staying aloft for an hour.
Over the Sea
The increased use of UAVs has led to an ongoing effort to upgrade current models. The Israeli Navy, for example, is gradually replacing Seascan-class maritime observation jets with a Heron-class UAV (the Shoval). The upgraded version is equipped with Elta's naval surveillance radar systems, advanced electro-optic payloads, and a satellite communications system (Satcom).
According to Avi Bleser, the head of UAV sales at Malat, the upgraded Heron has a 1,000 km operational range and hovering time of eight consecutive hours. "Even in strong winds, its flight time over a specific area of activity is more than twenty hours," Bleser says. He also explains that the improved Heron carries an upgraded electric system capable of supporting new payloads.
The maritime patrol-configured Heron generally operates in tandem with naval vessels that receive data from the UAV without emitting any signals, thus preventing detection by enemy vessels or hostile aerial platforms. The Satcom system on the maritime Heron transfers data to a shore-based control station where commanders can alter the UAV's flight pattern if necessary. In addition, its mid-air refueling will do away with the need to replace UAVs over areas of intensive activity.
Other Israeli UAV manufacturers have come out with an array of new products. Aeronautics found a thriving foreign market for its UAVs, and according to reports, the Israeli Navy purchased Aeronautics’ Orbiter 3 UAV. Aeronautics' Aerostar-C will be able to remain aloft for twenty hours and carry a state-of-the-art payload that is now in development. Current Aerostar models are in military use in several countries as negotiations are underway for more sales.
Innocon sold their UAVs to a number of foreign markets as well. One country in Asia purchased the Micro-Falcon model as part of a large transaction. Innocon also developed a system for simultaneous command and control for several UAVs.
Israel's BlueBird produced some interesting UAV models as well. Its SkyLite is competing with Aeronautics' Aerostar-2 model for a Finnish army tender.
Under the Engine
Though electric motors drive today’s UAVs, the battery's short lifespan limits flight duration. Professionals claim that batteries now in development, and especially the next generation of fuel cells, will change this situation.
Avraham Bleser acknowledges that Malat, in conjunction with other companies, is working on an advanced fuel cell that will revolutionize UAV propulsion with quiet electric motors. To solve the problem of flight duration, IAI's engineering division is developing a solar-powered UAV weighing 15 kg that is capable of remaining aloft for twenty-four hours. Along with accelerated efforts to develop fuel cells, intensive research is being conducted on jet engine UAVs.
Shlomo Tzach, the head of IAI's aero-engineering division, developed a UAV named "Prophet." He avows that the day is approaching when a fuel-cell powered UAV will remain aloft for seven consecutive days. Tzach also said he foresees unmanned cargo planes flying within a decade.
"At first, a pilot will have to be present on the aircraft for safety, but most of his time will be spent reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. After the test period, the UAVs will fly and land on their own with a twenty-ton cargo. Tzach takes out blueprints of an unmanned cargo plane—it’s easy to imagine him bent over a drawing board working out the details.
Cargo-carrying UAVs will have tremendous impact on the airline industry, which is currently foundering under its burden of expenses. By flying cargos over great distances, these UAVs will be the commercial airlines' lifeboat.
Aircraft materials are another technological area about to revolutionize the market. Most UAVs are built of complex, tough, lightweight materials. Researchers are working on even lighter materials, since every gram of weight critically affects performance.
While UAV manufacturers are rapidly developing military UAVs, everyone knows the civilian market is where the future lies. Until now, the civilian market remained stagnant for two reasons: the UAVs are cost-prohibitive to buy and operate and are restricted from flying over populated areas. However, once the licensing proscriptions are resolved, the civilian market will likely experience a boom in small and mini-sized UAVs. The sky is the limit with the number of civilian jobs that UAVs can perform.
Landing on the Back
The UAV industry is constantly working on an optimal method for landing UAVs without damaging them and their payloads. IAI's BirdEye 400 weighs 4 k and lands on its back. Just before landing, the wings exercise a roll, turning the BirdEye upside-down and landing it on its back, while two flexible plastic bars act as shock absorbers, aiding the landing.
Since the main mission of micro and super-micro UAVs is photography, they naturally have to be equipped with cameras. Ironically, the breakthrough in surveillance technology came from the medical field. The tiny cameras inserted into the body to locate health problems found their way to micro UAVs.
The Future Is Here
Tommy Silberring, the general manager of IAI's Malat plant, believes that the future of UAVs lies in making them automatic and autonomous. "The UAV will be operated by video control on command," Silberring explains. "UAVs avoid high-risk situations, and their systems regain control when something goes wrong. If necessary, they can self-destruct. Their cumulative abilities are almost infinite, and the linkup to ground systems and other systems is optimal."
In the same vein, Elad Aharonson, general manager of UAVs at Elbit Systems, identifies three trends in the field. "The first is the shift from manned missions to unmanned platforms that carry out attack and rescue missions. The second is miniaturization – developing mini air vehicles that can enter buildings. The third is aircraft autonomy. The goal is to produce a UAV that takes controls of an area, receives an assignment, and carries it out independently. Eventually, teams of UAVs will operate in synch, like a highly trained unit."
Israel's UAVs have become the axis that other systems revolve around. The UAV takes off, and through a rapid, multi-party communications network an operational link is created that produces the big picture. Some pundits term this the "mother of all systems."
In Israel, and especially at IAI, people are acutely aware of the enormous potential of UAV systems and the growing demands from clients. This has come to fruition in the aerodynamic structure known as the "twin boom" parallel body parts (like IAI's Heron and Heron TP models). This shape desensitizes the UAV to gravity, and enables significant upgrades on the UAV for mounting additional systems.
At a recent conference on flight and space, Silberring stated, "Our practical experience is what enables industry to progress. When we weigh the pros and cons for procuring a fighter aircraft or UAV, our practical experience is also a factor on the conference table. There isn’t a state in the world today that underestimates the UAV as a central pillar in its force layout. This is a market worth tens of billions of dollars, and accordingly, the number of manufactures in the game is very large and the competition very stiff."
Elad Aharonson agrees. "UAVs give the ground forces a tremendous edge by providing them with depth of vision on the front and beyond the hill. This kind of vertical observation is a breakthrough in ground warfare."
Israeli R&D in UAVs extends in other directions as well, but on this, not even a word can be written.
**Photos: The X51A WaveRider Hypersonic UAV by Boeing; The Predator and Reaper UAV command and control center; Hermes 450