The convergence of technical possibility and operational necessity will continue to create new opportunities for military UAVs

Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA

The demand for new military unmanned air vehicle (UAV) capabilities is forecast to continue growing well into the coming decade, driven not only by current programmes but also by an expected expansion of potential applications.

The market is also likely to be shaped and conditioned by factors ranging from available budgets to programme risk. This is particularly the case where leading-edge concepts are involved, such as unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV), or where applications and technologies have yet to prove full maturity, a factor still impacting the development of vertical take-off and landing unmanned air vehicles (VTUAV).

Most nations already look towards the USA for guidance, with a combination of Congressional pressure to deploy unmanned systems and sheer budget capacity likely to ensure that the USA continues to lead the development of most applications in the near to medium term. In tactical unmanned air vehicles (TUAV), however, the USA may be closely followed and, in some cases, led by manufacturers from Israel and Europe.

The USA is unlikely to be challenged in the UCAV and endurance UAV sectors for the medium to long term, largely due to the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk and at least three separate UCAV programmes - two public and one classified.

US market dominance is supported in the near term by a number of milestones that will have a major bearing on future programme directions. These include the receipt of proposals in February from Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for the US Navy's (USN) multi-role endurance (MRE) UAV requirement.

Within the next three months, the Frontier Systems A160 Hummingbird rotary-wing medium-altitude endurance (MAE) UAV is expected to make its first flight under a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) technology demonstration. Both projects will help shape US concepts for UAV applications beyond 2005, potentially influencing the US Air Force's approach to replacing the General Atomics Predator later in the decade.

In September, the US Army is expected to make a decision on whether to proceed with acquisition of its AAI Shadow 200 TUAV, with initial systems currently undergoing an extended operational test and evaluation period.

The USN is progressing with the Northrop Grumman Firescout VTUAV through a similar process. But no decision on whether to proceed with acquisition is expected for at least two to three years.

In turn, the Firescout project is being closely monitored by nations interested in deploying maritime systems, including the long-standing NATO Project Group 35 effort exploring options for a potential common UAV solution for allied navies. While extensively delayed because of technical difficulties with the demonstration air vehicle, sea-based trials of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) Seamos VTUAV are expected to proceed over the next two years.

Depending on the respective maturity demonstrated by both Firescout and Seamos, a market for maritime VTUAVs could emerge around 2005, providing a much needed boost for other vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) programmes, including Bell Helicopter's Eagle Eye tilt rotor, Sikorsky's Cypher and Boeing's Canard Rotor Wing.

Broader NATO interest in developing a co-ordinated approach between member nation programmes is also expected to shape market directions in the medium to long term, although key decisions on common requirements could be made between April and August. Lead project activities are expected to emphasise high-altitude endurance (HAE) UAVs.

The NATO effort is likely to act as a focal point for a range of potential HAE programmes in France, Germany and the UK during the second half of the decade. Germany has been actively exploring the potential of both manned and unmanned endurance systems since the late 1980s, with current research and planning activities expected to shift into a definition and development phase late next year or in early 2003.

French interest in both MAE and HAE UAVs was significantly stepped up by lessons learned in operations over Kosovo. The French air force is preparing to select an MAE system in the first half of this year. The competition pits the EADS Eagle, a variant of the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Heron, against Sagem's Horus; a modified General Atomics Predator; and Silver Arrow's Hermes 1500. The requirement calls for a total of five systems to enter operational service late next year.

UK interest in long-endurance systems is still being defined as part of ongoing Project Extender studies, but may impact the emerging Watchkeeper requirement, with a number of contenders having previously flagged interest in offering MAE solutions. The Watchkeeper system is intended to enter service in the 2006-8 timeframe, with consideration also being given to a maritime surveillance role.

Broader markets

Outside of NATO, attention will focus less on endurance capability and more on new tactical-level programmes, particularly for first time UAV users. Such programmes are also likely to include strong requirements for domestic development, with UAVs seen as a comparatively low-cost way for many nations to enter the aerospace sector.

Israeli UAV manufacturers have dominated these markets for more than a decade, with nations benefiting from commercial and government-to-government links including India, Singapore and South Africa. In the case of India, the Israeli relationship has evolved to include exploration of medium- and medium/high-altitude endurance systems based around IAI's Heron. India signed a combined Searcher and Heron purchase deal last June.

Israel itself continues to explore a range of future applications for vehicles in the Heron class and above, particularly to tackle the continuing problem of locating and destroying mobile missile launchers. Key areas of technology development include airborne radar surveillance, low-observable features and on-board artificial intelligence systems. The costs associated with their development are likely to drive Israeli firms into seeking longer term international relationships to offset costs. France's looming MAE decision has particular significance in this respect.

Israel's technical co-operation activities with China have previously been identified as potentially including UAVs, though no firm evidence has yet emerged. China continues to explore potential military and civil applications, with a wide variety of tactical air vehicle designs unveiled over the past two years, primarily led by the Xian Northwest Polytechnic University, and the Beijing and Nanjing Universities of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

US assessments suggest that, while China sees great potential for UAVs as an element of future military operations, its experience to date remains limited by both air vehicle capability and an underdeveloped command and control (C2) infrastructure. The same assessments also suggest that, while China would probably prefer to purchase proven systems on the international market, its leadership may have determined that national interests require indigenous development, albeit with foreign assistance.

Pushing military limits

While operational deployment of military UAVs is expected to be commonplace by 2010, technology development will continue throughout the decade. This will include new approaches to the air vehicle itself and the critical issues of C2, vehicle autonomy, artificial intelligence, sensor capabilities and information extraction.

A parallel trend is already evident in the increasingly blurred definition of what constitutes a UAV, particularly in relation to guided weapons. This is likely to have a significant influence on warfighting concepts, particularly deep battlefield engagements.

Convergence of UAV technologies with guided weapons is being driven both by interest in the development of common airframes for use either as a sensor platform or warhead delivery system, and by the integration of UAV-like capabilities into weapons to provide greater operational flexibility. An example of the latter is the equipping of mortar shells with a sensor and datalink rather than warhead, with a parachute to slow the round so that adequate imagery can be obtained.

Interest is also increasing in the use of new weapons technologies in UAV design from the outset. Examples include air vehicle control using fibre-optic links similar to that used on the EADS Polyphem medium-range battlefield missile. This could facilitate development of submarine-launched and -controlled UAVs.

In the longer term, the evolution of cruise missile target-identification software algorithms, better air vehicle on-board processing capability and the introduction of artificial intelligence capabilities all have the potential to offer significantly improved air vehicle autonomy in both tactical and endurance roles.

Source: Flight International