BAE Systems has disclosed further details of UK Royal Air Force operations using its Herti autonomous unmanned air vehicle in Afghanistan, and underlined its intention to advance airspace integration work in the UK next year using the type.

The Rotax-powered Herti 1B UAV has been flown from Camp Bastion in Afghanistan's Helmand province since mid-year by personnel from the RAF Air Warfare Centre (AWC).

The Herti can carry a payload of up to 150kg (330lb), including a full motion video or infrared sensor, plus one fixed narrow field-of-view and two wide field-of-view stills cameras.


 © BAE Systems

The RAF in September 2006 signed a deal to lease one Herti demonstrator under its Project Morrigan initiative, which aims to prove safe operations of an autonomous UAV alongside manned strike aircraft in non-segregated airspace.

But with combat operations in Afghanistan placing heavy demands on the service's special mission aircraft inventory, BAE's Military Autonomous Systems sales and marketing director Andy Wilson says: "At the moment, all the focus is on [providing] accurate, high-quality reconnaissance and surveillance."

BAE and the RAF decline to comment on the specific missions being performed, but sources indicate that the UAV could be useful for tasks such as monitoring border areas. Its payload's coherent change detection capability could also be to highlight the placement of improvised explosive devices.

Preparations began at Australia's Woomera test range in October 2006, where AWC personnel participated in a two-month demonstration of Herti's autonomous Imagery Collection and Exploitation system payload.

 © Craig Hoyle / Flight International

The work also demonstrated a so-called "reach-back" capability, where the team was able to relay imagery back to the UK via satellite within a 10s period: an attribute that Wilson confirms has now been used during frontline operations.

Release-to-service activities involving the 450kg air vehicle began in the middle of the year and led to the completion of a full operators' manual for the AWC, which has one multi-engine pilot available to fly the aircraft if required.

However, once planned, operations can be conducted via mouse clicks, says Wilson, who adds: "This is the first time that the RAF has fielded an autonomous system with certification."

Operations are overseen from a ground control station housed within a 6.1m (20ft)-long ISO container, with workstations for a pilot, image analyst and mission commander.

In addition to providing image intelligence, the deployment has also succeeded in demonstrating the system's ability to safely deconflict with other air traffic, with the UAV having been required to abort one landing approach and enter a pre-set hold pattern when a Lockheed Martin C-130 transport was given priority.

Slingsby will in late November deliver the first production-standard Herti air vehicle to BAE, which expects to conduct a detailed evaluation of the design - which has a slightly increased maximum take-off weight and an endurance of up to 20h - around year-end.

BAE says it has no plans to order additional examples as "white tails", although Wilson says "we could react quickly if a request came through" - for example under an urgent operational requirement deal to extend operations in Afghanistan.

Further development of the Herti could include the integration of a BAE-produced medium-range stand-off sensor, Selex Sensors and Airborne Systems' PicoSAR synthetic aperture radar, a target geo-location capability, plus target designation systems, and electronic and signals intelligence sensors, says BAE, which exhibited a ground test example of the Herti at the 11-15 November Dubai air show. Multi-UAV operations from a single ground control station are also being considered.

Operations in Afghanistan mean that the RAF has yet to field Herti as part of a major peacetime exercise, but Martin Rowe-Willcocks, head of export programmes for Military Autonomous Systems, says: "We will continue working with the AWC in 2008, pushing the boundaries on airspace integration."

BAE would also like to offer the Herti as the demonstrator platform for the UK's Autonomous Systems Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment airspace integration project, he says.