UAV operations in unsegregated airspace and vehicle certification are key issues facing Australia's industry as it attempts to build itself a role in the global market

A year after the setting up of Australia's national unmanned air vehicle industrial initiative, industry participants have widened its remit to explore the full array of technology and policy obstacles still in the way of regular UAV operations in commercial airspace.

The industrial and academic participants are also looking to use the project to explore new aerostructures and materials technology, with the planned third-generation UAV demonstrator to potentially incorporate low observable and morphing airframe features.

In parallel, the national project will see a Jabiru Australia LSA light sport aircraft converted into an optionally piloted air vehicle as a testbed for subsystems to be incorporated in the proposed third-generation UAV demonstrator. These include new autonomous guidance and control systems, sense-and-avoid technologies and beyond-line-of-sight datalinks.

Peter Smith, head of the UAV technical team, says the project's goal when it was established in April 2004 was to develop "a small vehicle in which we would demonstrate Australia's generic aerospace technologies".

That aim has evol­ved to focus­ on "what you have to do to make UAVs much more useable in a national and an international environment, whether civil or military. We said that the two things that are killing us [in the development of the commercial UAV market] at the moment are inability to operate in controlled airspace along with manned aircraft and the inability to operate over populated areas. Every­thing is really secondary to that; solve that and all of a sudden the world is a much bigger place and a much easier place".

Bus driver

Speaking at the Flight International-AUVSI Unmanned Systems Asia Pacific conference in Melbourne last month, Smith said the project is also seeking to simplify UAV operations to open up a wider potential user base. "We want to achieve a situation in which the ease of operation and autonomy was such that you became a bus driver rather than an F/A-18 pilot in terms of operator background."

He said the project would explore arange of composite airframe and associated technologies, "po­­­t­en­tially including such things as mor­ph­ing wings". The third- ­generation air vehicle demonstrator would display "not necessarily stealth, but certainly improved covert operations capability". Smith, who is also chairman of Australian-based UAV developer Aero­sonde, says a new joint venture, Unmanned Technologies, is being created to provide a commercial framework for the project.

The modified Jabiru LSA aircraft will be used optionally manned to reduce programme risk. "For an extended part of the programme there will be a pilot in the aeroplane should anything go wrong, but later it is our expectation that we will have fully autonomous flights from engine on to engine off," says Smith.

Modification of the Jabiru will start in June with fully autonomous flight to be demonstrated in March 2007. Timeframes for the third-generation UAV itself are still being determined.

According to Dr John Best, general manager advanced systems at ADI, Australia's best option for developing a sustainable unmanned air systems industry is to continue to explore niche solutions focused on international rather than national markets. However, he also says the need to resolve the problems of airspace integration and the establishment of a UAV certification regime remain critical to Australia achieving a sustainable global market role. "Those first UAVs that achieve certification and those first markets where there is authorisation to fly them in unsegregated airspace will provide a significant competitive advantage in seeking to access other markets," says Best.

ADI is developing a family of high-speed, short-endurance UAVs for rapid battlefield reconnaissance missions with funding sup­port from the Australian Department of Defence.

Best told the conference that significant investment costs of entering the high-altitude, long-endurance and unmanned combat air vehicle segments of the military UAV market will limit Australian industrial activity in those areas. However, "when we get down to medium altitude long endurance air vehicles I think the barriers are coming down. In the tactical and micro UAV segment…the barriers to entry are low. The technology is well understood, it is commoditised, it is inexpensive. It is not hard to get an aircraft in the air, " he said.

Best added: "The UAV industry, particularly at the lower end, the tactical and micro end, is a very crowded market. It becomes a challenge for us then to search for opportunities within that space."

To develop a role in the commercial UAV market, Best says Australia needs to "identify options to be versatile in how we service different customers. I think it is very clear from those of us who have had some interaction with potential civil customers is that at this point it time the cost of UAV systems are too expensive for them to acquire for specific functions. We need to contemplate models where we can sell services rather than selling systems, and the ability to be flexible and service multiple customers I think will be key to this part of the market progressing."

Sixty Australian companies are participating in the UAV initiative. However there are a significant number of stand-alone UAV development programmes also underway in the country.

Last month's Australian International Airshow saw the unveiling of the newi-Copter vertical take off and landing small UAV demonstrator by Queensland-based V-TOL Aerospace, and the Pelican Observer emergency service UAV being developed by the Airborne Defence Research Organisation (ADRO).

V-TOL Aerospace has spent a year and A$500,000 ($386,000) developing its lead product, funded by an Australian venture capital firm. Managing director Mark Xavier says i-Copter is the first of four new UAVs and an integrated command and control system planned by the company as part of a strategy to offer a complete systems approach to the commercial UAV market. "We are trying to deliver almost a military standard autonomy capability to the commercial user."


I-Copter spin-off products being marketed include a lightweight three-axis, 360°-scan sensor ball and gimbals capable of holding a 5kg (11lb) payload, and a two-stage turbojet built using parts from Australian and European suppliers.

Xavier says the other UAVs in the family will be pitched at higher-end capability and based on "hybrid technologies". The platforms would offer increased range and endurance and carry greater payloads. I-Copter has an endurance of 1.45h and a cruise speed of 80km/h.

V-TOL Aerospace decided not to participate in the national UAV initiative, says Xaviar, arguing that market forces alone should shape industrial capability. He says the company believes it can establish its own market base in Australia provided it can offer sufficiently innovative technology at reduced cost compared to manned aircraft or other technical solutions.

The prototype of Melbourne-based ADRO's Pelican Observer first flew at the beginning of March with ground control station and datalink systems loaned by L-3 Communications. Like the i-Copter, the Pelican Observer features a sensor turret, in this case made entirely of plastic, including the gearbox. ARDO says the development was driven by the desire to maximise sensor payload while keeping the air vehicle as small as possible. The UAV has a wingspan of 5m and is 2.3m long, with endurance of around four hours. ARDO is now looking for investment partners.

Smith says that despite its difficult recent transition into private ownership, Aerosonde is continuing to invest in development of its low altitude, long endurance UAV family. Aerosonde will soon perform its first 40h-plus endurance mission off the east coast of the USA using its newly unveiled Aerosonde Mk 4.1 UAV.

He says the company is currently negotiating a series of new commercial service contracts with these including a demonstration late this year of typhoon monitoring in the North Pacific region for the US Air Force. The demonstration could evolve into a five-year contract he says, depending on initial trials.


Source: Flight International