The Indian Air Force continues to augment the lethality of its conventional fleet with the unique capabilities offered by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. With the Heron and Searcher fleets having proved their credentials in frontline service, the IAF is now looking to induct smaller hand launched UAVs that can be carried and deployed by a two member crew. The need to provide the soldier on the ground, detailed real time information in his area of operations has acted as a catalyst for the development and introduction of Small UAVs (SUAVs). The introduction of Pointer, Pathfinder Raven, and Dragoneye SUAVs, among others has seen the SUAV concept gain credibility in the past three years. In this short span of time, the SUAV has proven to be critical to the small unit, obtaining real-time, relevant situational awareness and reducing risk to the unit’s mission and operators. SUAV technology has had a dramatic impact on the battlefield in recent years, permitting commanders and individual soldiers to understand and develop a situation before making contact, manoeuver largely out of contact, and only then, initiate decisive action, bringing all inherent capabilities to bear with accuracy and lethality. The SUAV’s capabilities that have been fielded to the military user have been very well received and proved to be instrumental in many operational successes.
To pass muster with the IAF, the UAV would have to be capable of taking off vertically or being launched by hand. This puts a number of slightly heavier and better-known systems such as the Skylite B out of contention. The RFP also stipulates that the UAV will have to carry a Charged Couple Device (CCD) camera or a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) sensor as required. Despite the IAF leaving the service ceiling specifications open ended, it is unlikely that the fifteen thousand foot service ceiling offered by a number of contenders would disappoint. Another category that has been left open ended is avionics. With most UAVs flying autonomously, the avionics on board these small UAVs are at par with most manned aircrafts. Flying autonomously, the UAVs are controlled by a combination of the onboard software and the information relayed by the ground station. A touch screen interface allows the operator to direct the UAV without having to manually take control of it.
The Honeywell RQ-16A T-Hawk is a ducted fan Vertical Take off & Landing (VTOL) micro UAV. The T-Hawk is a product of the Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) program that was launched by the United State’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Following a $40 million technology demonstration contract to Honeywell Defense and Space Electronic Systems in 2003, the MAV project was transferred to United States Army's Future Combat System program to fulfill the need for a Class I platoon-level drone. In 2007, the United States Navy awarded Honeywell a $7.5 million contract for 20 MAVs for deployment in Iraq with the US Multi-Service Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group. The hovering feature of the MAV has been critical for US forces in Iraq that search for roadside bombs. Military convoys have been using T-Hawks to fly ahead and scan the roads. The Iraq trials were so successful that the US Navy placed a surprise order for 372 MAVs, designated RQ-16A T-Hawk, in January 2008. The 186 MAV systems will each consist of two air vehicles and one ground station.
The gasoline engine powered T-Hawk weighs in at approximately 8.4 kilograms, almost four times the IAF’s preferred weight for such a system. The system has an endurance of around 40 minutes and can operate in a radius of about 6 nautical miles around the ground station. The T-Hawk has clocked forward speeds of up to 70 knots; however, the MAV is operationally restricted to 50 knots by the onboard software. The T-Hawk base station consists of two radios and a laptop computer. The two radios plug into the laptop computer and individually look after data feeds and command and control guidance to the air vehicle. The laptop application is touch pad driven and can accommodate as many as 40 pre planed waypoints in a single mission. Being the only operationally deployed wingless UAV, it is the lone contender from this class in the competition. Wingless UAVs come with their share of pros and cons. The hovering ability of the T-Hawk allows it to shine in the tight confines of an urban battlefield. The T-Hawk enables soldiers on the ground to look into the third floor window of a building from less than a foot away as also to keep a constant watch over suspects from a fixed angle. However due to the UAV’s constant hover it tends to consume a large amount of fuel. This limits the UAV’s endurance to less than fifty minutes and increases the amount of fuel carried by the operators. The hover also generates a large acoustic signature that allows the UAV to be detected easily from as far as 125 meters.
Overall, the T-Hawk, while a capable UAV, shines best when in the tight confines of an urban environment. With the IAF looking more towards surveillance of larger and more open areas the T-Hawk is unlikely to fit the bill.
The AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven is a small hand-launched remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle developed for the U-S military, but now adopted by the military forces of many other countries. The RQ-11 Raven was originally introduced as the FQM-151 in 1999 and in 2002 it was developed into its current form. It won the US Army's SUAV program in 2005, and went into full-rate production in 2006. Shortly afterwards, it was adopted by the American special operations command, the US Marines, and the US Air Force. The Raven also serves with the armed forces of several other countries that include Australia, UK and Spain. All told more than 13,000 Raven airframes have been delivered worldwide. This gives the Raven a track record and a degree of credibility that only a handful of UAVs around the world can match.
The Raven is launched by hand and powered by an electric motor. The plane has an operational radius of 10 Km and can reach altitudes of 1,000 feet above ground level. The aircraft is capable of flying between 45 to 96 Kmph and has an impressive service ceiling of 15,000 feet above mean sea level. The RQ-11B Raven UAV weighs about 1.9 kg and has a flight endurance of 60–90 minutes. The RQ-11B Raven UAV is launched by hand, thrown into the air like a model airplane. The Raven lands itself by auto-piloting to a pre-defined landing point and then performing a near-vertical "Autoland" descent. The UAV can provide day or night aerial intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. The Raven can be either remotely controlled from the ground station or fly completely autonomous missions using GPS waypoint navigation. The UAV can be ordered to immediately return to its launch point simply by pressing a single command button. Standard mission payloads include charge-coupled device color video cameras and an infrared night vision camera. Closest to the RFP’s specifications and combat proven, the RQ-11 Raven is a natural front-runner in this competition. However with the Lockheed Martin’s Stalker UAV having entered service the Raven’s days in the inventory of the American armed forces seem numbered. This is likely to affect the Raven’s chances.
Lockheed Martin’s Lockheed Advanced Development Programmes - better known as Skunkworks, to address specific requirements raised by US special operations forces, developed the Stalker UAV in 2006. The all-composite design was developed in response to special operations requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan. A strong sense of urgency at the user’s end saw the Stalker make its first flight in mid 2006. However the prototypes passed through three iterations of design, test and fly before the current configuration was finalised. The Stalker has since entered service and is gradually replacing the RQ-11 Ravens. The UAV is designed in a manner that allows it to be carried and operated by an individual soldier. The hand- launched UAV weighs 6 kilograms and has a wingspan of 3 meters. Stalker can carry payloads of up to 1.3 kilograms on a two-hour mission at ranges of up to 20 km. The Stalker, true to its name, features a very low acoustic signature that is derived from an extended assembly designed for the electrical motor. Company officials refer to this technology as a “hush drive” and claim that the unique low noise propulsion system makes it highly suitable for the special operations role. The autonomous vehicle is designed to operate under difficult weather conditions. It is certified to operate in winds up to 30 knots although it was demonstrated to be usable in winds up to 50 knots. Launched by hand, Stalker is designed for automatic retrieval over any terrain, without a parachute, by using deep stall and specially designed shock absorbing belly. The UAV will autonomously return and land in area up to 50 feet from its designated landing point.
The UAV is equipped with a specially designed electro optical payload comprising of a retractable stabilized pan and tilt mount, which can be fitted with "plug and play" sensor modules that can readily be swapped out depending on mission requirements. The modules are also feature firmware that automatically loads an optimised flight-handling profile into the UAV autopilot to ensure that the UAV remains within its most effective load and range parameters during a mission. The current modules include a daylight camera, low-light camera, an uncooled thermal sensor or a combined sensor and laser target marker. The gimbal head and sensor modules use sliding lock connectors with facing electrical contacts to allow for transmission of data to the air vehicle datalink, as well as power and navigation data to the sensor. The payload is mounted under the belly and is retracted into the belly before landing. However, the module can also be easily removed to allow that space to be fitted with droppable payloads for rapid air resupply or delivery missions. Stealthy, lightweight and capable of operating at high altitudes, the Stalker clearly represents next generation of UAVs. While on the face of it the UAV seems be a strong contender for the contract, it remains to be seen if US government allows Lockheed Martin to bid the Stalker as a direct commercial sale.
Through the current decade, EADS has watched the nature of warfare evolve and has now taken cognizance of this change. The company has outlined a vision where UAVs will be the dominant instrument in military operations the world over, especially in Europe for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance missions.
Having lagged the Americans and Israelis in the development of unmanned air vehicles, EADS is racing against time to equip the European armed forces with unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) to enhance their operational capabilities. The company has launched a tri-lateral programme with Germany, France and Spain as partner countries for developing a range of UAVs that can be deployed for military missions and civil applications. The multiple applications include swift actions against terrorism and piracy, strengthening control of illegal immigration and contributing to the management of natural and ecological disasters such as oil pollution. EADS has delivered 120 Tracker UAVs named Drac to the French army, which has deployed a dozen of them in Afghanistan since May. A few of them have been combat proven with an undisclosed Middle East customer! The Tracker UAV is designed for tactical detection, reconnaissance and surveillance, troops or convoy protection and artillery support. A hand-held device, Tracker can be launched quickly for over-the-hill reconnaissance and surveillance, detection, classification, localisation and tracking. The Tracker features a twin boom configuration and an over wing sensor pod, a first among hand launched UAVs. The Tracker is capable of carrying a sensor payload of 1.8 kilograms and fully loaded, weighs in at 7.5 kilograms. This makes it considerably heavier than some of the other systems on offer. Tracker has an endurance of approximately one hour, a capability that could be attributed to the UAVs 1.4 meter wingspan.
In addition to proactively promoting the Tracker UAV across the globe, EADS has offered the Tracker to the Home Ministry to meet India’s growing internal security needs. Eager to catch up with the competition as also to gain a toehold in the Indian market, one can expect EADS to pull out all stops and bid aggressively in order to bag this lucrative contract.
Elbit Skylark I
Elbit developed the Skylark UAV for tactical close-range surveillance missions, artillery fire adjustments as well as force protection and perimeter security. In February 2004 Elbit won an IDF Ground Forces Command contract to supply the Skylark for evaluation and testing as an organic UAV system, to be operated by infantry units. Skylark has since entered operational service with selected IDF units. During the Second Lebanon war in July-August 2006, IDF units performing close-in reconnaissance missions in support of ground forces operated Skylark mini-UAVs. The Skylark with its low visual and acoustic signature was able to operate at low altitude, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of the onboard payload.
Like most other man portable fixed wing UAVs, the Stalker is assembled before the mission and is launched by hand. Its wings and tail surfaces are constructed of lightweight composites, the fuselage tubular boom is also made of composites. The entire mission is flown autonomously, feeding real-time continuous video and telemetry data to the portable ruggedized ground station. Recovery is performed by a deep stall manoeuver, which lands the vehicle safely on a small inflatable cushion, at a pre-designated point. The cushion is designed to protect the payload on landing.
The avionics and payload systems are contained in a pod carried below the boom. The gimbaled payload utilizes a daylight CCD or an optional FLIR for night operation, which can be rotated by four gimbals. The original Skylark I used a miniature gyro stabilized payload weighing only 500 grams. When fitted with night-camera, the payload's weight doubles to one kilogram. Payload-vehicle integration enables simple and intuitive operation in holding position, as the payload "looks" at a designated point while the UAV circles above to maintain a continuous cover, and camera guides, where the user designates a target or route to be followed by the payload and aircraft. Images obtained by the camera are overlaid on the integrated map situational display. The Skylark 1LE uses a different payload called STAMP stabilized miniature payload developed by Controp, available in daylight, night, uncooled thermal and HD configurations.
Keen to keep its hold over the Indian market it is likely that Elbit will offer the latest variant of the Skylark dubbed the Skylark 1LE. The Skylark 1LE features a number of improvements over the original Skylark. These include an increased endurance of three hours and an extended operational radius of 15 Km. The Skylark 1LE has an operational altitude of +3000 ft to -700 ft above or below the takeoff point and the operational ceiling of the UAV is 15,000 ft.
Light, portable and combat proven, the Skylark is clearly going to give the RQ-11 Raven a very tough fight. However like the Raven, the Skylark too shall find itself falling short if the IAF decides to set the Stalker UAV as the benchmark.
Given that the RQ-11 is perhaps closest to the RFP’s specifications, it is tempting to conclude that it is the likely winner. However, as the Indian Air Force is yet to reveal the role it envisages for these UAVs, it would be counter productive to make any predictions. With so many competitors tied so closely it is likely that this competition is going to be decided based parameters that are easier to judge than define.
With the Indian Army too looking to induct hand launched UAVs at the battalion level between 2012 and 2017, the Indian Air Force’s order is likely to serve as precursor to a fierce competition that is likely to follow. Keen to score an early victory it would not be surprising to find the OEMs going all out in a bid to score an early victory in what is clearly going to be a long drawn battle.