The market for electro-optical systems mounted on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) will double to almost $500 million annually by the end of this decade, as air forces increasingly aim to keep pilots out of harm's way.

In its UAV Electro-Optic/Infrared (EO/IR) Sensor Market Overview released at Paris today, the Virginia, US-based Teal Group says the bulk of funding for sensors will continue to go on high-endurance UAVs, such as Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk. The emerging market for Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) will not grow by as much as its proponents currently believe.

The overview by Dr David Rockwell, Teal's senior analyst for electronics, says US Department of Defence spending on UAVs will have tripled from its FY01 level of $360 million by FY04, with an increasing percentage of this figure being spent on sensor packages rather than platforms.

The report points out, for example, that recent changes to the US Air Force's General Atomics RQ-1 Predator sensor suite have resulted in Raytheon's AN/AAS-052 Multispectral Targeting System now accounting for half of the Predator's total $4.5 million fly-away cost.

Teal believes the US Air Force's entire fleet of top-of-the-range Global Hawks - the service plans to buy 51 - will carry Raytheon's $12 million 400kg (880lb) Global Hawk Integrated Sensor Suite, as the new Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion sensor suite will not be ready before the end of the decade. Australia, likely to be the type's initial export customer, may fund additional sensor development, particularly for the maritime surveillance role.

An indicator of Global Hawk's importance came in the recent Iraq conflict, says Rockwell, where it flew only 3% of all aircraft imagery-collection sorties and 5% of high-altitude missions, but collected data on 55% of all air defence time-sensitive targets.

The vehicle is supplanting the venerable Lockheed U-2 in the imagery role, with this trend likely to increase if plans to add signals intelligence and hyper-spectral sensors to Global Hawk firm up.

Sensor technology advances sought by customers on UAVs include streaming video to high-definition television standard, combined with a real-time precision targeting capability and automated precision geolocation.

"Better image resolution is needed but even more important is improved software and systems for discriminating smaller, camouflaged targets," says Rockwell.

"As more UAVs gain laser targeting designators, automatic target recognition will become vital."

Compared with Global Hawk, says the report, tactical UAVs will see much lower funding levels. "Neither the numbers nor the funding are there," says Rockwell. "Several fixed and rotary-wing programmes are in development, but few have definite production plans."

The only other programmes likely to come close to the funding deployed on endurance UAVs will be UCAVs. However, says the overview, analysis of current and planned programmes show combined markets of just $100 million, "still much lower than many optimists would like to believe".

Source: Flight Daily News