Israel has unrivalled experience and expertise in producing unmanned air vehicles, with no fewer than four domestic companies active in the sector

Israel pioneered unmanned air vehicles, first developing the technologies needed to fly the aircraft in the early 1970s within Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI). The Israeli air force fielded the company's Scout air vehicle during the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict and now conducts daily operations with its own inventory - acknowledged only to comprise Searcher II UAVs - and contracts services from national companies Elbit Systems and IAI. These agreements allow the service to use more sophisticated air vehicles on a "power by the hour" basis and to maintain persistent surveillance over the Gaza Strip.

IAI, along with European partner EADS, this year became the first company to fly a large UAV at one of the defence industry's major exhibitions, flying sorties with the Eagle 1 development of its Heron at Singapore's Asian Aerospace exhibition last February. IAI's Malat division now has over 30 years of experience and more than 160,000 flight hours with UAVs. It records annual sales worth more than $300 million and is enjoying year-on-year growth of around 10%.

Lead product

Malat's UAV heritage started with decoys before it developed the Scout, Pioneer, Hunter and Searcher air vehicles. Its lead product today is the 1,100kg (2,430lb) maximum take-off weight Heron, which has an endurance of over 51h and a 220kg payload. An Eagle variant of the air vehicle has been selected for the French military, and the type is on offer to the US Army and to operators seeking an efficient unmanned maritime surveillance capability.

Development activities include studies into a turboprop-powered Heron and a larger HA-50 design that IAI hopes to offer at a unit cost at least $10 million lower than Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAV. Future developments will be in the areas of new generation tactical UAVs, micro/mini air vehicles and civilian and autonomous air cargo vehicles, says Shlomo Tsach, director of flight sciences for IAI's engineering division. Unmanned cargo aircraft could enter use in Europe around 2020, he believes. Other activities include research into heavy fuel engines and future fuel cells.

Elbit's Silver Arrow business is another leader in UAVs, with its product range including the Hermes 180/450/1500, Skylark and Seagull air vehicles, plus ground control equipment. Its Hermes 180/450 air vehicles were earlier this year shortlisted for the UK Ministry of Defence's Thales-led Watchkeeper intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance system, with the company's one- or two-man ground control station (GCS) on offer to form the basis of the operating system. The Israeli supplier says the lightweight GCS can also be installed in a ground vehicle or support helicopter to increase operational mobility. Watchkeeper's success will expand Elbit's European footprint and could lead to follow-on deals with other nations.

$10m demonstration

To be built in the UK as the Watchkeeper 450, the Hermes 450 also this year took part in a $10 million demonstration for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during operations with the Arizona Border Service. Elbit's US subsidiary EFW provided air vehicles, GCS equipment and operators during sorties totalling almost 480h flown from June 2004. The system was used to block 780 unlawful entries into the USA from Mexico, and thwarted 11 attempts to bring drugs across the border. The programme could be extended next year to include patrols along the USA's northern border with Canada.

Elbit's chief operating officer Itzhak Dvir says UAV users are demanding larger air vehicles with more payload capacity, increased safety, heavy fuel engines and an automatic take-off and landing capability. Additionally, there is also a need to provide narrowband communications between air vehicles to allow for future operations of unmanned "swarms" of self-organising aircraft. Another growth area eyed by Elbit could see current manned aircraft converted into HALE UAVs, says Dvir.

The Israeli air force has embraced UAV capabilities for over 30 years, but the pace of innovation is rapidly changing the way the service operates, says Brig Gen Zeev Snir, head of the air force's materiel directorate. "We are integrating UAVs more and more into operations in a way that you couldn't see five years ago. Demanding combat against terrorists in the Gaza Strip is enabling us to practise new ways of doing things."

Used with other air force assets, such as attack helicopters and manned fighters, UAVs are playing a vital role in closing the targeting loop, enabling the service to strike targets quickly from standoff range by swiftly passing information to "shooters" via sophisticated datalinks. While long aware of the need to reduce the time taken between locating and identifying a target and prosecuting it, the USA's "war on terrorism" has underlined the need to close the sensor-to-shooter gap.

A time of 10min between a target's location and destruction is widely identified as a goal for militaries around the world, but in some instances the Israeli armed forces are already achieving results well within this goal, say industry sources. Persistent surveillance by UAVs over the Gaza Strip have enabled the military to conduct precision strikes against opposition targets well inside this timeframe, they claim, giving Israel a capability that is still many years away for most developed militaries.

Two further companies are active in the UAV sector - Astronautics and Rafael.




Source: Flight International