Qioptiq logo Raytheon Global MilSatCom


By Sara Waddington

Sara Waddington offers a strategic outlook on new international UAV technology and procurement developments, concepts and challenges

The world has woken up to the potential offered by UAV systems. Their gradual creep from the cold has assumed the proportions of an avalanche as significant hikes in worldwide spending levels on UAV system development are recorded. Further increases are projected as programmes mature and requirements sharpen.

UAVs have claimed a far larger share of defence budgets (particularly in the US) after demonstrating their worth as reconnaissance assets in theatres such as Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. This has, in turn, spurred press awareness and boosted funding prioritisation.

UAV suitability for use in ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ missions, growing public intolerance to loss of life, their increasing success in service and demonstration, multi-national efforts in digital datalink air traffic control, increases in payload capability and the need to fulfil multiple requirements and capabilities have unlocked new markets and missions for these systems.

Although the US takes the lion’s share of UAV research and production spending, it is in Europe (and countries such as Israel) that the majority of smaller tactical UAV systems have been fielded and tested operationally for the past few years. According to a recent study, Europe is expected to almost double its share of the global UAV market in the next ten years (from 11% to 19%).

The UK, France, Germany and Italy will invest most heavily in UAVs, confirmed a separate study by Frost and Sullivan. The European aggregated military UAV budget is expected to reach around EUR 5.5 billion between 2003 and 2012. Asia, a fast-growing segment of the global UAV market, is expected to reach 24% of the total market by 2007.

European manufacturers, however, lag behind their US counterparts within the HALE (high altitude long endurance) UAV and UCAV (unihabited combat air vehicle) segments.

Selected UAV systems in operation

Around 40 countries currently operate in the region of 75-80 types of UAV systems for reconnaissance and surveillance.

Several UAV systems were operated by US forces in Iraq last year. These included one Global Hawk HAE UAV system, Predator medium altitude and endurance platforms (in RQ-1 and MQ-1 configurations), Dragon Eye mini UAV systems and the US Army’s Shadow 200 system (manufactured by AAI with endurance of 5 hours and a cruise speed of 70-85 knots).

Global Hawk reportedly located at least 13 surface-to-air (SAM) missile batteries, 50 SAM launchers and 70 missile transporters as well as imaging an estimated 38% of Iraq’s total known armoured forces.

Other tactical systems in use during the conflict include the small Raven UAV (operated by the US Army), the Pointer hand-launched system, the Silver Fox and the US Army’s RQ-5 Hunter. The Hunter reached its 3000-combat flight hour milestone in November 2003 and has conducted over 600 combat sorties since its deployment to Iraq in January 2003).

Away from the Iraqi theatre, UAV numbers have swelled overall as, by mid-2003, the US DoD reported that there were approximately 97 UAVs in the field . By 2010, according to the US UAV Roadmap, this inventory is likely to quadruple.

The US Marine Corps is still operating its veteran Pioneer RQ-2 and has plans to upgrade the system. The US Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator is flown operationally with EO, IR and SAR sensors using either C-band or Ku-band (beyond line-of-sight) data links. The pre-production Predator B incorporates a wider fuselage to house additional fuel, enabling it to fly for over 30 hours while carrying over 3,000 lbs of external and 800 lbs of internal payloads for a total gross take-off weight of 10,000 lbs.

Israel has an estimated 20 UAV programmes currently live. It has been operating its tactical Scout and Searcher UAV systems (m

Back to article list