The “spiral” upgrade of UAS

What happened with fixed-wing combat aircraft and rotorcraft has started to happen with unmanned air systems (UAS).

The upgrading of UAS is on – and we will see more and more such programmes. However, unlike with manned aircraft – which are not upgraded by the manufacturers in most cases – UAS will get an extended service life from manufacturers.

While the platforms are mature, the payloads have to be capable of performing more and more missions according to the “appetite” of field commanders.

This is probably because the platforms are relatively small in most cases, and the party carrying out the upgrade has to know the specifics intimately.

Many UAS are being upgraded in a “spiral” pattern. One good example is the recently revealed Heron-1 NG – the upgraded version of the best-selling UAS manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

The Heron NG is the fourth “spiral” development based almost totally on the operational requirements of current operators.

The Heron NG is offered with an enhanced multi-sensor payload – and the sensors are tailored to the needs of the operator.

The multi-sensor enables the UAS to perform its missions over any terrain, including forests, jungles, swamps, at sea or over urban terrain, where the use of a single payload would render a mission ineffective.

In some versions the payload is connected to a satellite communications systems link provided by Elta Systems, an IAI subsidiary. This advanced system extends the operational range of the Heron, limited by fuel availability. Sources assess that it enables missions ranging about 810nm (1,500km) from the UAS’ operating base.

It also provides for increased flexibility in flight profile – particularly in mountainous terrain and long-range maritime patrols, where the UAS can descend below the datalink’s line of sight.

Some current clients have equipped the Heron-1 with an advanced communications intelligence payload. This unit is capable of instantly localising radio and cellular transmissions indicating potential activity, even under a tree canopy.

The Heron-1 can also carry a synthetic aperture radar – also made by Elta, and some of the clients choose to equip the Heron-1 with a new Elta-developed foliage penetrating radar.

The automatic takeoff and landing system of the Heron-1 has been improved. It integrates two redundant reference systems – laser and differential GPS.

The options for upgrades are varied, and the clients want them on their operational platforms.

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