July 08, 2013
Credit: U.S. Navy Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Sunderman
Just as computer users have gravitated from desktops to notebooks, notebooks to tablets and tablets to smartphones, armed forces and government security agencies are finding more uses for small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) of under 150 lb. all-up weight.
In fact, the market is diverging, as truck-mounted UAS, with large and unwieldy catapults, are replaced by higher-performance runway-launched systems or smaller versions. One stark example: Sagem is proposing its motor glider-based Patroller to replace the French army's aging 750-lb.-class Sperwer, while the Dutch armed forces have replaced Sperwer with Insitu ScanEagles.
While Israel continues to lead the small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market, Boeing's Insitu unit has, up to now, earned a good deal of business and been able to fund rapid development programs on the back of fee-for-service contracts. Most of the 700,000 combat hours logged by ScanEagle, —now being joined by the larger Integrator and its U.S. military sibling, the RQ-21A Small Tactical UAS—including 29,000 ship-based hours in 2,700 sorties, have been under contracts where company employees maintain, launch and recover Insitu-owned assets and the military user pays for sensor-on hours over target areas.
The Insitu model generates profits, but also means that new capabilities are provided to the user as part of the service contract. The system can be upgraded outside military acquisition and training channels. In the case of the Integrator/Small Tactical UAS, the U.S. Marine Corps was able to operate it before the RQ-21 completed developmental testing. The USMC Air-Ground Combat Center has been flying the Integrator since 2011, and the UAS became operational aboard the amphibious landing ship USS Mesa Verde in February. The RQ-21A is expected to be operational in the first quarter of 2014.
New to ScanEagle—already in the field, but announced in May—is the EO-900 high-magnification daylight sensor, with 170 X zoom lens. Shrinking such a lens into an envelope “half the size of a breadbox” was not easy, but it provides a high level of detail from a great distance without requiring much communication bandwidth. The system incorporates a second wide-angle imager, and provides the operator with a “picture-in-picture” display to maintain situational awareness.
Also under test is what Insitu calls its Mid-Wave Infrared (MWIR) 3.0 sensor. After shrinking MWIR technology, the company combined MWIR and daytime electro-optical (EO) capability in a single sensor “with the same form factor, and virtually the same price” as the current MWIR 2.0. That permits an operator to keep aircraft on station without being constrained to switch between EO and IR.side: the potential for rapid shrinkage as major combat operations draw down. Consequently, the company has moved resources into the Asia-Pacific market. ScanEagle is operational with users as diverse as the Singapore navy and Australian Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Department. The latter has used the UAS over land, to monitor the growth of invasive Siam weed, and over water, to patrol for illegal fishing. The organization pioneered mixed-airspace operations, often at night when fish poachers work. Some plants can be detected by their IR signature, and other nighttime airspace users do not operate in the low-altitude bands used by a small UAS.
Insitu has new competition in the shape of ThunderB from Israel's BlueBird Aero Systems. Unveiled in June at the Paris air show, ThunderB is available with gasoline or electric power–the former offers 24-hr. endurance, and has retractable wheeled landing gear rather than Insitu's trademark catapult and SkyHook recovery system.