This is exactly what happened with manned aircraft: a robust, proven platform is being upgraded again and again to extend its operational life.
This has happened to many fighter aircraft, and now it is the turn of unmanned systems.
Israeli manufacturers of unmanned air systems (UAS) are beginning this process now. The first example is Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) decision to upgrade its best-selling UAS, the Heron.
The new generation (NG) Heron draws on the vast knowledge and experience accumulated at IAI in more than four decades of planning, developing, manufacturing and operating UAS. IAI’s UAS have accumulated more than 1,500,000 flight hours and are in use by more than 50 customers worldwide.
Heron NG upgrades include a new communication system that implements innovative line of sight and satellite communication technologies, in order to maximise mission capabilities, long-range applications and airspace integration.
Upgraded mission and flight computers enhance onboard processing capabilities and expand system interfaces, and an advanced sixth-generation avionic concept supports what the company describes as unprecedented autonomous capabilities.
The upgrade package also includes operational ground systems, training and simulation systems, and connectivity for the the sixth-generation generation control systems.
This upgrade trend continues elsewhere. UAS manufacturer Aeronautics has been awarded a contract for the long-term support of its Orbiter Mini UAS by the NATO Support Agency (NSPA).
As part of the contract, Aeronautics will conduct a mid-life upgrade program for the Orbiter miniature unmanned air systems (MUAS) fleet used by the NATO military presence that currently operates the system in Afghanistan.
NATO sources say forces from the Netherlands and Poland are currently using the Orbiter.
The $10 million program involves the complete renovation and modernisation of the Orbiter fleet over the next two years. It will also provide a comprehensive inventory of spare parts that will enable users of the Orbiter MUAS to operate the majority of their existing Orbiter systems during the term of the upgrade program, so maintaining operational capabilities.
The support contract, which extends for several years, will also allow other NATO members and partner organisations to purchase systems and support services through the NSPA.
Other manufacturers are now offering similar upgrades. This is a very big potential market that without doubt will be very active in the future.
Upgrade programmes that have extended the service life of manned aircraft such as the F-15, F-16, CH-53 and C-130 are now being applied to the UAS fleets that have grown dramatically in recent years.