Advances in platform, sensor and command and control technology are continuing to fuel boom conditions in unmanned air vehicle development. Our latest annual directory provides everything you need to know. To view the directory with details on individual UAVs you can download a PDF version (1.9 MB), presented in co-operation with Northrop Grumman.
Over the past 12 months the pace of the unmanned air vehicle industry has shown no sign of slowing down and every sign of continuing as a powerhouse of technological innovation. Building on the success of the 2004 UAV directory, the 2005 edition provides insight into all significant developments across the sector including the structure of the UAV industrial base; the background and technical capabilities of the predominant systems on, or about to enter, the market and the conceptual and technological approaches likely to influence UAV capability over the coming decade.
The 2005 edition also provides enhanced data on small and mini UAVs, particularly those based on VTOL technologies. This category is expanding following a shift in armed forces interest from theoretical to operational demands, particularly as a manoeuvre support asset for ‘urban canyon’ missions. The bellwether project for such applications remains the US Army’s future combat systems requirement for two classes of VTOL air vehicle, with a shortlist of organic air vehicle class II candidates imminent. Similar requirements are emerging among European armed forces, with developing French and German army urban warfare equipment projects expected to play a significant role in shaping European capabilities in this area.
The expansion of tactical systems recorded in the 2004 directory continues, key drivers being the desire for enhanced endurance and miniaturisation of payloads and guidance systems. Those trends are expected to provide manufacturers with increased performance from existing tactical platforms and higher-capability small and micro air vehicles in the near term.
Two other trends in the tactical space should be noted however. First, there is a clear desire by manufacturers to explore new aircraft capable of significant levels of endurance, with this blurring existing conceptual divisions between the tactical and MALE segment. That blurring is also reaching down into the lower tiers of the tactical sector in the form of low altitude, long endurance (LALE) UAVs as a result of extensive development and operational achievements by companies such as Aerosonde and Insitu. The use of parasail wingforms is also being explored by a variety of manufacturers seeking to find ways of extending endurance, with a rapid proliferation of approaches over the past two years and notable commercial success with the US Special Forces community by Canadian manufacturer MMIST.
Second, manufacturers are increasingly using the tactical sector as a test-bed for the development of new airframes conceived from the outset in terms of the expected emergence of a standard certification regime for UAVs. Galileo Avonica’s Falco development programme is one such example, the UAV planned to be developed under the Australian government initiated national UAV industry initiative is another. A further approach being seen in several countries is the adaptation of existing certified light aircraft as the basis of a UAV configuration, and the reader is directed to the examples of the EADS Surveyor 2500 and the Neany Arrow as cases of this approach in practice.
Adaptation of existing manned airframes continues to predominate in most top end VTOL UAV systems development activities. However the Bell Eagle Eye is an obvious exception to this approach. New platforms emerging in this segment in the past year include the Boeing Unmanned Little Bird and the Tactical Aerospace Group M2600.
As forecast in the 2004 directory, the MALE market segment remains largely bi-polar in its division between EADS and IAI in Europe and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems International in North America. The past year however has seen increased interest in MALE development by variety of companies interested in finding segment niches. There is a general consensus emerging within the global UAV industry that the technical hurdles required to be overcome to participate in the endurance marketplace are lowering, making the MALE segment accessible to companies with credentials already established in the tactical segment.
The MALE sector is also being regarded by national governments as a medium term vehicle for expanding existing national defence and aerospace technological and industrial capabilities, with the EADS-led Euromale programme an obvious case in point. However, both the MALE and HALE sectors continue to be limited to a few key military customers with total requirements for perhaps up to 130-160 air vehicles in the next eight to ten years. Those requirements also carry significant lead-times with respect to national government expenditure plans.
Israeli activities in the MALE sector have in the past been largely dominated by domestic air force requirements however Elbit Silver Arrow is now moving to substantially bolster the capabilities of its Hermes 1500 and its availability to the international market. Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) has enjoyed commercial success in the sector with sales of Heron to India and its use as the basis of the EADS Eagle 1 and Euromale aircraft. IAI has also explored options for licensed Heron derivatives in the past year to extend its market reach, including establishing relationships with Aurora Flight Sciences and Northrop Grumman in the US. Indian requirements also appear to play a key role in the Aeronautics Defense Systems Dominator development programme.
EADS’s own aspirations for the common European Euromale project have been revealed over the past year to be clearly aimed at the higher end of the capability spectrum. Significantly, EADS is planning long term development without the involvement of IAI, after earlier this year negotiating ownership of the basic Euromale design once the first demonstrator air vehicle is built.
The potential for a higher capability version of Euromale also appears to be a factor in long term EADS planning, particularly in terms of how it might provide either a direct pathway to a common European HALE system or contribute significant technologies if such a programme was initiated.
That same evolutionary approach, based around a common technology core, has already been demonstrated by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems International to offer a relatively low risk mechanism for advanced systems development in the form of the Predator family. GAASI itself plans to unveil and fly later this year their most ambitious derivative to date, a jet powered evolution of Predator B, designated Predator C, with capabilities reaching into the HALE market segment.
That development effort does have the potential to threaten Northrop Grumman’s existing dominance of the HALE market segment with the RQ-4 Global Hawk. For Predator C to achieve significant market presence in the short to medium-term however, substantial political intervention in US Air Force acquisition plans for the RQ-4B would be required with the US FY06 acquisition budget an immediate litmus test.
The HALE segment continues to be a major focus for the development of a civil marketplace for UAVs, with the UNITE and Access 5 initiatives in the US providing a critical leadership role for integrating systems into non-segregated airspace. In parallel a variety of international initiatives are advancing to resolve associated problems of UAV certification and airworthiness management. Significant efforts are also underway around the globe on critical enabling technologies, particularly sense and avoid systems. These initiatives can be expected to start to come to fruition over the next five years, allowing the current boom conditions in UAV platform, sensor and command and control technologies to be mirrored by the coming into being of a meaningful commercial marketplace. If carried through, the UAV outlook for 10 years hence is more than likely to closely mirror the current global manned aviation marketplace, where commercial applications predominate over military aviation by significant degrees of magnitude.