From compact, battlefield-launched, eyes in the sky to large, tactical reconnaissance platforms and warhead-armed systems that can loiter for hours before hitting their targets with deadly effect, Israel has led the world in developing unmanned air systems. With know-how created by the need to survey enemy combatants in built-up areas over long periods and strike them with precision, Israel’s industry sells its expertise to governments around the world, often partnering with local companies. Only US players General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman come anywhere near matching the expertise and experience of the likes of Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit Systems, Aeronautics, and a handful of smaller, specialist firms.

One of the main areas of focus for Israel’s unmanned air vehicle companies is bringing to market a new generation of loitering weapon systems – essentially highly sophisticated UAVs, rather than munitions. Demand for these systems started gathering pace about five years ago, at which time the only advanced loitering weapon made in the country was the IAI Harop. While it has proved popular, the Harop is a heavy platform. Armed with a 16kg (35lb) warhead and equipped with a highly-advanced day/night payload also made by IAI, the UAV is designed to destroy high-quality targets. Capable of being launched from sea or ground as well as air, and at any trajectory, it has a range of 540nm (1,000km) and endurance of 6h. South Korea – which already uses Harop’s predecessor, the Harpy – is among the nations evaluating the product.

As demand for loitering systems has grown, IAI itself and its rivals have begun developing and marketing smaller, more versatile alternatives to Harop. IAI is at the Singapore air show presenting its Green Dragon, which, despite its size – it weighs just 15kg, about a tenth of that of an armed Harop, and has a 2.5kg warhead – is said to be highly useful against most tactical targets. Designed to be used at battalion level, the tube- or canister-launched device employs a small electro-optical seeker and can loiter for 1.5h at distances of up to 21nm from its controller. Using a ruggedised tablet, the operator can designate and attack the target, or abandon the mission at any time through a built-in “abort and circle” capability, designed to prevent collateral damage or mistaken targeting.

Another, even smaller loitering munition system is the Rotem, which IAI unveiled last year and will also be showcasing at Singapore. Weighing just 4.5kg, the vertical take-off and landing system is powered by electric motors operating four rotors, and is armed with two hand grenade-size explosive units. IAI says the system is aimed at units engaged in urban fighting and can be controlled to “get through a window”. It has endurance of up to 45min and a soldier can carry up to four units, controlling them via a tablet using point and click commands. Rotem is also equipped with an acoustic sensor to avoid collision with obstacles in the area of operation.

Still in the field of small UAVs, UVision teamed with Raytheon two years ago in an attempt to market its Hero 30 loitering weapon system to the US Army. The tender, for the purchase of 25,000 units over 15 years, is expected to be issued in the coming months. If the Hero 30 is selected, Raytheon will serve as lead contractor under the partnership, delivering a derivative of the system that is lighter and equipped with a smaller warhead than the current Israeli version. That version weighs 3kg and is carried in a canister that doubles as a pneumatic launcher. After launch an electric motor deploys, while the device itself locks onto the pre-designated target and transmits a video to an operator with a hand-held unit. The Hero 30 is capable of loitering between 980ft and 1,970ft above the ground.

Interest in the Hero 30 prompted UVision to develop the larger, 40kg maximum take-off weight Hero 400 EC, which it unveiled in mid-2017. The Israeli company says the system uses advanced electro-optical/infrared payloads to locate, track and strike static or moving targets with accuracy and the element of surprise. With a 2h endurance, it comes with a 10kg payload and an electric motor enables it to loiter silently above a target, ready to respond instantly to pop-up threats. UVision chief executive Noam Levitt says the system was designed to answer a growing operational requirement for a loitering weapons system that could remain in the air for extended periods, provide a substantial warhead effective against a range of targets, and deliver missile-level pinpoint strike capabilities. “The Hero 400 EC answers these critical needs,” he says.

Meanwhile, Aeronautics has entered the fray with its new loitering system, the Orbiter 1K. Based on its Orbiter 2 mini UAS, it is the first loitering system produced by the company, which is known for its larger Aerostar and Dominator UAVs as well as its top-selling Orbiter family. The Orbiter 1K is catapult-launched and can fly for up to 3h carrying a multi-sensor camera with day and night channels. Operating within a given area, the Orbiter 1K scans the territory for its target – moving or stationary – and destroys it. As with other loitering munitions, the system is capable of returning to its base and landing safely using a parachute and airbag.

At the Paris air show last year, Elbit displayed its new SkyStriker loitering weapon system, believed to be the first of a family of such products. With an endurance of 2h, the SkyStriker has a maximum take-off weight of 35kg, including a warhead of between 5kg and 10kg. The system is able to engage targets from a variety of angles, while the operator is able to abort a strike as late as 2s before impact. Again, a parachute and airbag are used to land the device if a mission is aborted. The company describes SkyStriker as a “force multiplier for tactical units”.

Israel’s UAV developments go beyond loitering systems, of course. At Singapore, Aeronautics is presenting the latest and largest member of its Orbiter family, the Orbiter 4. Able to carry two, interchangeable, payloads, including a Controp electro-optical sensor and one allowing cellular phone conversations to be intercepted, the product has a 24h endurance. Aeronautics says it has already signed up customers for the Orbiter 4, which joins the mini, 1.5kg-payload Orbiter 2 – 1,500 of which have sold since its launch in 2005 – and the larger, small-tactical, 5.5kg-payload Orbiter 3.

Privately-owned Aeronautics – which was founded in 1997 and had a successful initial public offering on the Tel Aviv stock exchange last year – is a small company compared with Elbit and IAI: its revenues are around $140 million and it has 700 employees. But it is one of the leaders in the UAV world, with 70 customers in 52 countries. The business has a policy of being as vertically-integrated as possible and has acquired several small companies to add to its capabilities, deputy chief executive Danny Eshchar says.

Its factory, in Yavne, near Tel Aviv, is a “one-stop shop” with capabilities ranging from constructing composite materials for airframes to assembling them and designing and installing the payloads. Beyond its facility, it owns sensor and camera specialist Controp along with fellow stakeholder Rafael, and a new San Diego-based subsidiary specialises in ruggedised mobile control stations. “It means we can be cost effective to our customer as our overheads are lower,” says Eshchar. “It makes us very agile and responsive. If we get a big or urgent order, we simply add shifts and make sure we deliver on time.”

Although Aeronautics offers larger UAVs – its Aerostar tactical platform has a payload capability of 50kg, while its medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) Dominator XP is a derivative of Austrian general aviation aircraft manufacturer Diamond’s DA-42 piston-twin – Eshchar says the trend in UAVs is towards smaller aircraft which, thanks to the miniaturisation of payloads, are able to offer the same capabilities as their heavier predecessors. “In eight years, we have seen cameras go from 30kg to 3.5kg, and still provide almost the same degree of detail,” he says. “Tactical UAVs are still needed where the payload is needed for, say, wide-area surveillance and mapping, but I believe this layer [of the market] will be virtually eliminated in seven or eight years.”

IAI and Elbit are the big beasts of the Israeli unmanned industry, with IAI producing a range of platforms up to the 2,000kg-payload, Heron TP MALE UAV, while Elbit’s portfolio includes the Hermes 900 MALE, Hermes 450 tactical UAV, and the smaller Skylark line-up of small-tactical and man-portable offerings. Both have been targeting the export market with their larger products. With Thales, Elbit developed the Watchkeeper tactical UAV from the Hermes 450 for the UK, and the pair continue to seek export buyers for the system. Brazil flies a version of the Hermes 450, while that country, together with Chile and Switzerland – as well as the Israeli air force – are customers for the 250kg-payload Hermes 900, which made its maiden flight in 2009.

IAI beat General Atomics' MQ-9 Reaper to win a contest to supply the Heron TP to Germany, in partnership with Airbus Defence & Space, although the deal stalled last year while Germany struggled to form a new coalition government. IAI is also pushing an export, XP version of the aircraft to India, with a proposed production partnership with two local companies. To meet restrictions imposed by the international missile technology control regime 2 agreement, the payload capacity has been reduced to 450kg.

Arie Egozi contributed to this article

Source: Flight International