30 Aug 15. There have recently been three big announcements relating to man-portable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also known as miniUAVs: the Indian Army released an RFI for the procurement of 600 mini-UAVs; AeroVironment was contracted to supply its Raven mini-UAV to the Spanish Army; and the US Air Force is reportedly developing a “Small UAS Flight Plan”.
There is a growing demand for UAVs in this category, driven by the requirement to provide an “around the corner” and “over the hill” observation capability to ground units. In addition to the above recent announcements, many other countries in Europe and Asia are currently procuring or planning to procure mini-UAVs.
Demand for mini-UAVs
While mini-UAVs have existed for a few decades now, the increased demand for these systems was fuelled by their proven use during Operation Iraqi Freedom. US troops have increasingly deployed miniUAVs in both Iraq and Afghanistan to provide intelligence to troops at the battalion, company, and platoon levels.
Mini-UAVs are electric-powered, operate below 5,000 feet, and have an endurance of a few hours. They are easily transported by troops and are assembled within a matter of minutes. These systems have low payloads; the main mission requirement is to provide clear information, so day- and nightvision systems and sensors are a crucial component. The average payload weight of these systems is about 1-2 kgs.
Based on displays at recent defence trade shows, it appears that there is demand for fixedwing UAVs and hovering rotorcraft in this segment. While the military requirements for UAVs in-theatre has focused on fixed-wing solutions, there appears to be a growing demand for Vertical TakeOff and Landing (VTOL) solutions from law enforcement agencies and other operators in urban environments.
The main demand for VTOL UAVs comes from law enforcement. Many traditional defence companies are offering VTOL solutions for internal security agencies. An example of this is the Drako K5 manufactured by Selex ES and marketed for civil and commercial requirements. AeroVironment is also marketing its Qube mini-UAS to law enforcement, first response and other public safety authorities.
Operators and Solutions
The US armed forces are estimated to operate the largest force of man-portable UAVs in the world, with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) coming in second. The US Air Force (USAF) is expected to release its “Small UAS Flight Plan” this winter, according to a news report by Flight Global on 18 August 2015. The USAF is reported to be following the US Army and considering an increase in investment in small UAVs. The US has deployed variants of the RQ-11 Raven mini-UAV extensively and successfully in international missions, leading to a seemingly ever-increasing demand for these systems from other NATO countries over the past decade. Most recently, on 20 August the USAF awarded a contract totalling USD3.4 million to supply RQ-11B Ravens to the Spanish military via a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) deal. In an August 2015 press release, AeroVironment announced that it has delivered more than 25,000 new and replacement small UAVs to customers across 30 countries. The French armed forces are currently looking for options to replace the “Tracker” miniUAVs purchased under the
DRAC programme. RFPs for the programme, which is titled “SMDR”, have been issued with decisions to be made in 2016. According to data on European UAV trends from Forecast
International, France is estimated to spend more on UAV research and procurement than any other country in the region.
Poland has six major ongoing programmes aimed at boosting its UAV capabilities, including the planned purchase of Wizjer miniUAVs and Wazka VTOL mini-UAVs for its special forces. In line with plans to establish a strong UAV capability, Poland has announced that the Mirosławiec airfield, which currently hosts Polish Su-22 Fitter attack planes, has been selected to become a UAV-only base. The base will be designated the 12th Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Base, and will begin operations in January 2016.
Other European countries that have acquired mini-UAVs include Austria, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and the UK. A large number of these countries went to US firm AeroVironment for its Raven, Puma and Wasp mini-UAV systems. This, however, appears to be slowly changing due to the increasing competitiveness of Israeli-manufactured UAVs. Elbit Defence Systems, for instance, has enjoyed recent success in this segment with its Skylark mini-UAV.
Israel’s Growing Market Share
The Skylark I saw service in Lebanon with Israeli troops in 2006. Since then, NATO countries including Australia, Canada and France have purchased these
Skylarks. Earlier this year, Elbit launched the new generation of its Skylark I-LE mini-UAV, called the “Skylark I-LEX”. Improvements include better performance, an encrypted communication system, an advanced ground control station (GCS), GEO registration, and enhanced safety features. Recent mini-UAV competitions seem to have involved shortlisted Israeli companies competing against each other. Other Israeli UAVs that compete against Elbit’s Skylark in international competitions include Blue Defence’s Spylite, IAI’s Panther Mini, and Aeronautics’ Orbiter 2.
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The supply base for miniUAVs in Europe is rather small. Examples of European solutions currently being offered in the international market include: the Mantis mini-UAV developed by Spain’s Indra Sistemas; the AR4 from Portuguese company Tekever; the FlyEye from Poland’s WB Electronics; the DF-2000 developed by Airbus Group; the FT-150X from Brazil’s FT Sistemas; and the Bayraktar developed by Turkey’s Baykar Makina.
(Source: MPI – Hawk Information)