Australia's small UAV industry continues to show real innovation, but needs more cash to fulfil its potential

Later this year, an experimental fixed-wing UAV, guided by sensing and navigation systems based on those of a dragonfly, will attempt a 200km (110nm) flight across the desert wastes of Australia's Woomera test range.

Intended as a proof-of-concept and an analogue for possible flights of a self-launching, autonomous UAV mission in the Martian atmosphere later this decade, the flight is to be carried out by the Australian National University (ANU) with the Australian Defence, Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO). Most project funding is being provided by NASA, with additional support from the US Office of Naval Research and US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The UAV for the trial is a 14.5kg (30lb) delta wing with pusher propeller, and is directly based on a family of flying-wing UAVs developed by DSTO for the research programme. The smallest member weighs just 1.5kg - but the Martian variant would have a maximum airframe weight of only 200g (7oz). The guidance system common to all variants comprises an oculi made up of photo diodes, an 8-bit processor and around 200 lines of software code, the algorithms of which have been derived from observation of dragonfly flight.

The project is one of three significant technology programmes under way in the Australian aerospace sector that are largely targeted at the development of commercial and scientific applications for UAVs. Since the second quarter of last year, trial flights of purpose-developed resource exploration UAVs have been carried out in the Australian outback, under the guidance of a team from the University of South Australia and Adelaide-based Aerospace Sciences. Australia is also the home market of the Aerosonde meteorological monitoring UAV family - a prototype version was the first unmanned aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean autonomously.

The emphasis on commercial and scientific applications reflects the origins of each of the programmes as solutions to specific environmental challenges. It also reflects the relatively slow adoption of UAV technology by the Australian Defence Forces despite military applications leading development activities in the international marketplace.

The potential overlap of the two market sectors is seen by analysts as considerable. The dragonfly vision system, for example, emerged from closely related research by the ANU into the sensing and navigation systems of bees, work which attracted US Department of Defense funding, with a view to designing a form of missile seeker head.

This market overlap is expected to be enhanced by the launch this year of the Australian Department of Defence's Joint Project 129 tactical surveillance UAV competition, and plans for the purchase of a HALE surveillance system via a separate project after 2005. Those competitions are seen by domestic analysts as providing an important catalyst for the expansion of UAV research and development over the long term, particularly if the Department of Defence seeks high levels of local industry involvement in its acquisition strategies.

The establishment of a viable UAV industry sector in Australia has frequently been mulled by domestic analysts and niche players, but development has been slow. In 1997, a market survey sponsored by the Australian Department of Industry, Science and Tourism argued that a commercial UAV market worth around A$20 million ($11.6 million) could be developed between 1998 and 2002, while Australian military requirements represented potential of between A$740 million and A$1.7 billion over the same period. The study argued that an effort to develop UAV technologies for domestic and global markets could represent a market worth A$2.6 billion. South-East Asia alone was seen as having potential UAV requirements of US$237-546 million between 1998 and 2002.

The study also made the point that the priority in any co-ordinated Australian national UAV strategy was to focus in the short term on "a tactical-type UAV with a payload category of less than 25kg, speed of 100-240km/h [54-130kt], and varying operating altitudes". The programme would have had military and civilian applications, but was intended as a compromise to help jump start the local technology base.

While the 1997 market forecast recommendations have not been realised, the survey predicted problems in the development of commercial UAV applications. It said: "Only a very small proportion of the potential commercial UAV markets has been tapped. Large-scale use of UAVs is thwarted by the reluctance of potential commercial UAV users to invest in the development of UAVs for their purposes.

"In addition, many potential users of UAVs are unaware of the level of preparedness of research and development organisations to implement operational UAV systems. Without funding, these organisations are unable to demonstrate functional systems. A stalemate exists."

Financial hurdles

Six years on, the financial hurdles facing Australia's UAV sector remain considerable, with offshore investment a critical factor in most current projects. As well as funding the ANU/DSTO insect vision programmes, NASA, the US Air Force and the US Office of Naval Research have also provided funding for Aerosonde. The University of South Australia's Aerospace Sciences mining exploration UAV programme is understood to be wholly funded by Newmont, a US-based mining industry multinational, but this has not been publicly confirmed.

In the past two years, the search for funding has seen Aerosonde and the former Sonacom, now part of the Zylotech group, separately listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASE), with the objective of generating sufficient investment to underwrite their UAV business interests. Sonacom has been funding the Mirli VTOL flying-wing UAV development programme at the University of Sydney for around three years. Designed for military and commercial maritime surveillance applications, the air vehicle has close conceptual parallels to Boeing's short-lived Heliwing UAV programme, but has gone on to demonstrate vertical take-off and sustained autonomous hovering flight. The company hopes to demonstrate the ability to perform an autonomous stall manoeuvre to move from vertical to horizontal flight within months.

Sonacom was already carrying accumulated losses of A$6.3 million when it released a share- market prospectus in February 2001 seeking A$4.2 million to develop maritime surveillance technologies, including UAVs. The float realised A$4.26 million - but by April last year, the ASE was warning that financial commitments were testing the company, with negative cashflows for the first quarter of 2002 at A$513,000. This had been reduced to A$399,000 by the end of the second quarter, however, and Zylotech, an Australian-listed security technology firm with a major foothold in the Australian video-conferencing sector, launched a take-over based on a three-for-one share swap. Sonacom announced in early August that Zylotech had secured a majority shareholding, and was delisted the following month. Zylotech issued an additional 12 million ordinary shares to cover the take-over.

Analysts say Zylotech has been pushing hard for results from the Mirli development programme since the take-over, with a view to offering the UAV as a candidate for the military's JP 129 competition. But the same analysts argue the firm is unlikely to continue funding unless there are clear prospects for a sale in the short term, with Zylotech hit hard in the technology-stocks wreck of 2001-2, bottoming out at A0.8¢ (0.5¢) a share. Zylotech ended the 2001-2 Australian financial year with losses of A$585,600, and has yet to release its results for the first half of 2002-3. Its shares traded at A1.8¢ in mid-January.

Negative cashflows

Sonacom's experience has been mirrored by that of Aerosonde, which raised an initial A$3.58 million against a target of A$5 million when it listed in mid-2001, with the objective of setting up a global commercial meteorological mid-atmosphere monitoring service. It was suspended from trading in May after reporting an adverse financial outlook, and delisted in September as part of a complex buy-out by founding director Dr Greg Holland and Saab Systems Australia. In its final report to the ASE, at the end of July last year, Aerosonde reported a fourth-quarter profit of A$519,000, but negative operating and investing cashflows of A$2.8 million for the previous 12 months.

Analysts tracking Aerosonde's performance believe that the technical orientation of the company's management meant that most of the money raised through the float went into improvements on the air vehicle rather than in developing the business service. This resulted in its market base remaining static rather than expanding, despite interest. At the same time, rival UAV manufacturers began looking at options for exploiting the same market niche, including proposals by Northrop Grumman to use its Global Hawk UAV to perform the same meteorological monitoring mission. US company, Insitu, which was involved in the original development programme for the Aerosonde vehicle, is also targeting the niche with its Seascan UAV, jointly developed with Boeing.

Aerosonde continues to develop the meteorological services business concept and has explored other markets over the past 18 months, particularly the military sector, with support from Saab. The latest version of the Aerosonde UAV, the Mk III, is undergoing additional development with funding support from the Australian military under a A$2.4 million, three-year effort known as Project Avatar (Autonomous Vehicle Advanced Tactical Applications Research).

Avatar was set up last May at the direction of Australian defence minister Robert Hill, to provide financial support for Aerosonde while it attempted to trade out of its financial difficulties. DSTO backed the programme as a means of providing its researchers with immediate access to production UAVs for the trial of a wide variety of operational surveillance and intelligence gathering concepts ahead of the entry of the JP129 UAV system into Australian Army service.

The DSTO has since begun flight testing of lightweight electronic warfare payloads, including a DSTO-developed stand-in noise jammer, two different radio-frequency location systems, and a signal repeater for a portable HF radar system. Avatar also includes design of a new fuselage for the Aerosonde Mk III by DSTO.

The University of South Australia's Aerospace Sciences mining exploration UAV is designed to replace manned aircraft in magnetometer geo-survey work at altitudes below 400ft (122m). Three versions of the tandem-wing air vehicle, which is similar in configuration to the Alliant Techsystems Outrider, have been developed.

Michael Harris, senior research fellow at the University of South Australia's Systems Engineering and Evaluation Centre, says the mining explorer was a full system-level prototype, which flew for the first time in June, and made five flights up to November. A 60%-scale testbed trainer was developed early in 2002 with two airframes built for avionics and mission system flight tests, with nine flights made before year-end.

The third version, an intermediate level prototype, was developed last year, with flight testing expected to start in early 2003. According to Harris, the monoplane variant will be used to flight test a fully integrated avionics and mission system package before work restarts on the tandem-wing design. The final version may make use of a drogue-and-skid landing system.

The tandem-wing design is intended to counter stall problems emerging from the low operating altitude and low ground speed of the UAV. These factors have resulted in a significant number of accidents of manned fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft performing similar survey tasks and have inhibited the use of UAVs in the role. One of the major design drivers in the development programme has been the priority of ensuring the survival of the magnetometer payload in the event of any mishap, with the air vehicle regarded as expendable. Several complete airframes would be carried on any deployment.

The operational concept calls for the UAV system to be deployed by a two-man team with a four-wheel-drive vehicle towing a trailer housing the air vehicles and ground control station. The command and control system being developed features an autopilot and pre-defined waypoints and survey lines, but retains a large degree of man -in-the-loop control to handle terrain obstacles.

Harris says the nature of the mining industry and the diverse environments the UAV would face are unlikely to result in a common, one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, he says that, while the tandem-wing design may suit Australian conditions, use by mining companies in places such as South America would involve extensive modification due to altitude constraints.

Source: Flight International