The operational need is there and the technologies are at hand – and yet the plan to develop a system that will take the pilot out of helicopters is still moving ahead very slowly.
Many companies in the world are making developmental efforts, but none can offer a commercial solution at this point or any point in the near future.
Israel aerospace industries (IAI), a world leader in unmanned systems, is continuing its efforts to develop an unmanned version of a manned helicopter. The company has been involved in the effort for years and has made impressive progress, but there are still some hurdles to overcome.
Two years after a joint venture between IAI and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) aimed at developing an unmanned version of the Dhruv helicopter was abandoned, the Israeli company is now moving ahead alone.
A source says that this time the plan is to use a more advanced helicopter of the Eurocopter EC-145, which has a fly-by-wire flight control system.
The source adds that the unmanned helicopter will be designed to meet Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) regulations, which are aimed at limiting the range and carrying capability of unmanned systems. Israel has not signed the MTCR treaty but follows its limitations.
IAI has identified a need for an unmanned helicopter for military use, especially on navy ships. Other potential customers include emergency services that have to operate in danger zones.
As I said: the need exists and various technologies are available – but what is needed is a dedicated customer, willing to invest money, to get the remaining work done.
The feeling is that while many countries understand the operational need, they think this kind of system is of the “nice to have” type, and therefore postpone the crucial decision.
Israeli sources say that the solution fits any type of helicopter, from the smallest to the CH-53 category. They also say that the operational advantages are huge – but while they are enthusiastic, an enthusiastic customer is still to be found.