Vertical take-off and landing unmanned air vehicles are just one class of pilotless aircraft capturing the imagination of military forces, entrepreneurs and scientists. UAV manufacturers hope that enthusiasm will be translated into an economic boom.

Although primarily viewed as an instrument for the military, civil applications of UAVs are expected to proliferate once issues are resolved of airspace sharing between manned and pilotless aircraft.

The USA has emerged as the dominant market for remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), such as the giant solar-powered AeroVironment Pathfinder high-altitude long endurance (HALE) aircraft. Now lethal unmanned combat air vehicles are under study, as are micro-UAVs small enough to be held in the hand. Other nations, however, are beginning to convert their interest into procurement plans.

Procurement chief at the UK Ministry of Defence Sir Robert Walmsley said recently in a keynote address to the 13th Bristol International RPV/UAV Systems Conference that "-UAVs are capable of providing support to the warfighter or even becoming a replacement for the warfighter-[and] have gained the critical mass necessary for serious consideration and exploitation". He believes that "-UAV solutions should be considered to complement, rather than replace, manned aircraft, and have distinct advantages in undertaking dull, dirty and dangerous missions".

UAVs have been around for 50 years, but it is only recently that intense industry commitment has developed as new missions are explored. The market is being shaped by increasingly defined requirements and shrinking sensor packages. Despite the worldwide decline in defence spending - or perhaps as a result of reduced budgets - UAVs are being looked at to take on new and increasingly complex missions.

According to US marketing consultancy Frost & Sullivan, the world market for UAVs will grow until at least 2004. Revenues for the total market in 1997 hit almost $2.3 billion and growth is anticipated to accelerate after 2000, as technological and regulatory issues are addressed.

The firm believes that Europe and the Pacific Rim will be particularly active in the procurement of tactical UAV systems, and will continue to show interest in deployment of strategic high-altitude endurance UAVs. Frost & Sullivan also concludes that the UAV market will become increasingly competitive, with the number of participants expected to diminish.

Worldwide firm requirements are beginning to emerge. Australia has launched Joint Project 129, or Warrendi, for the airborne surveillance of land operations programme. It is closely examining the Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical Global Hawk HALE UAV for long-range missions and various VTOL and fixed-wing UAVs, such as the Alliant Techsystems Outrider, for shorter range tactical operations.

The Outrider is also a candidate to fill a Finnish army requirement for a tactical UAV. Also under consideration are the Oerlikon-Contraves Ranger, Sagem Sperwer and Matra BAe Dynamics Tucan '95. A procurement decision is expected in early 1999.

Turkey is reportedly the launch customer for General Atomics' Improved Gnat-750 UAV and is in the market for a tactical UAV, according to government and industry sources. The Ankara Government is seeking foreign partners willing to accept licensed production in Turkey.

The officials expect Turkey to issue soon a request for proposals involving procurement of 10 tactical UAV systems, each having six air vehicles and a control station. Alliant Techsystems has briefed the Turkish military on the Outrider's capabilities, but sources say the competition may be limited to VTOL UAVs. Bombardier believes its CL-327 Guardian may therefore fit the bill.

Kuwait, meanwhile, is believed to be purchasing the Lear Astronics Skyeye UAV system through US foreign military sales channels. The deal, which has yet to formally announced, is said to include three systems (each with four air vehicles) worth an estimated $26 million.

In September, the USDepartment of Defense is expected to select a contractor to build at least 200 Tactical Control Systems (TCS), a common ground control station. Prototypes have been tested with the Gnat-750 and VTOL UAVs. A TCS/Outrider integration demonstration is set for July.

The TCS is part of NATO Project Group 35's trilateral maritime UAV international technology demonstrator project, and Canada has purchased a prototype to develop doctrine for UAV operation by the Canadian Forces. It is looking for an Unmanned Airborne Surveillance and Target Acquisition system.

General Atomics recently won a $72 million contract for two Predator UAV systems, including eight air vehicles, for US Air Force operations and TCS integration testing. The firm has an in-house effort under way to develop a turboprop heavy-fuel engine for the Predator, which is powered by the gasoline-fuelled Rotax 914. The new configuration would allow civil operators to use the Predator for telecommunications relay.

The Predator is service with the USAF, carrying the Northrop Grumman Tactical Endurance Synthetic Aperture Radar (TESAR). The US company is now developing a smaller version of the TESAR for tactical UAVs, under a US Army contract.

Source: Flight International