Wednesday, October 21, 2009

UAE looks for new eyes in the sky

Middle East nations are about to launch a buying spree of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but their first major purchases are unlikely to be the headline grabbing attack drones used by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Instead, Northrop Grumman says it is receiving strong interest from Gulf states for its Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which is suited for border and maritime patrol, and even to combat piracy.

The UAE is “very interested” in the aircraft, as is Saudi Arabia, says Gene Fraser, the vice president and deputy of strike and surveillance systems for Northrop Grumman, the world’s fourth-largest defence contractor.

“I think the UAE sees the value proposition of the aeroplane, with its demonstrated performance.”

UAV sales in the region will grow more than 10 per cent a year for the next five years – the fastest of any defence segment in the Middle East, says Frost and Sullivan, a London-based consultancy. The steep growth curve is partly due to its low base; the regional market is valued at less than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) a year.

The interest in the aircraft from Gulf nations stems from needs to protect their land and maritime borders, as well as critical oil and gas infrastructure, especially amid regional instability, say analysts. The drones also could help Gulf states combat the growing problem of piracy.

Worldwide, the industry could double in the next 10 years to $8.7bn in sales, according to the Teal Group, a US-based consulting firm. The US accounts for 61 per cent of the spending, Teal says.

The UAV boom is due to their popularity with reconnaissance missions that are either too expensive or tedious for pilots to perform – the dull and dangerous work of an air force.

UAVs can also help Gulf militaries lower costs and sidestep manpower shortages, as training a pilot can take years and cost millions of dollars.

“GCC states have a strong future potential in the UAV segment due to the mix of security and military requirements,” says Marko Lukovic, the principal aerospace and defence consultant at Frost and Sullivan. Owing to its previous experience with UAVs, primarily smaller-scale unmanned helicopters, the Emirates represents the “regional vanguard” for UAV use, he says.

Unmanned flight goes back almost to the beginning of aviation history, although it has only been recently that technology has enabled them to fly with a high degree of autonomy.

The UAV was developed in 1918 by the US navy to be used as flying bombs during the First World War, although the war ended before the aeroplanes could be used. The Curtiss/Sperry “Aerial Torpedo” was designed to be loaded with TNT and launched against enemy targets. The engines were to stop after a set time, so the plane could then dive into the target.

Today, militarised UAVs can cover anything from craft with wingspans as small as two metres, to high-altitude, long-endurance drones such as the Global Hawk, which can stay aloft at an attitude of 18,300 metres for more than 32 hours. The size of the aircraft is based on the size of the payload – weapons or sensors – it needs to carry.

Most unmanned systems are vehicles for high-powered sensors, capable of electro-optic, infrared, near-real-time digital video, radar and chemical detection. But some are equipped with weapons, such as the Reaper UAV from General Atomics, an attack craft that can carry 220kg bombs.

While UAVs are seen as being futuristic, they are becoming more popular because they are based on proven aircraft models, Mr Fraser says.

“UAVs are not really smashing into bold new frontiers from a technological standpoint,” he says. “Instead, they are aggregating many technologies; the Fire Scout is an off-the-shelf helicopter that has been modified.”

The model is derived from a three-person light utility and training helicopter from Schweizer Aircraft of Horseheads, New York. The Fire Scout, at seven metres long and three metres high, can fly faster than 200km per hour, staying aloft for 8 hours as high as 6,100 metres.

Sophisticated technology gives it the ability to direct itself autonomously.

Its flight pattern can be programmed into the craft before the mission. Also, controllers on the ground can direct the Fire Scout, as long as it is in the line of sight. If that is blocked, the helicopter is programmed to fly to a higher altitude until it re-establishes contact.

To prevent it from being taken over by cyber-attack, anti-hacking software is built into the system, Mr Fraser says.

“We understand that risk and have taken measures – I’ll leave it at that,” he says.

Northrop, which has been developing unmanned systems since the 1940s, puts the potential worldwide market for the Fire Scout at more than 2,000 over the next five years, with more than half coming from international sales.

The company will not disclose the cost, although reports have put it at $9 million for the aircraft, sensors and ground-control system.

Like many defence products, the Fire Scout programme was launched after the US military agreed to fund it. The US navy plans to use them on surveillance missions aboard frigate-class ships, and currently has eight systems on order for evaluation.

Meanwhile, the US army is “weaponising” the Fire Scout with Hellfire missiles and laser guided weapons, and also plans to use it to carry up to 90kg of emergency supplies to troops in the field. It will introduce the Fire Scout into its forces around 2015.

If the UAE decides to purchase the Fire Scout, it would join smaller unmanned systems in its fleet.

The Government has spent the past decade researching the new technology, and has purchased small unmanned surveillance helicopters from Schiebel of Germany and CybAero of Sweden. In 2007, it created its own UAV investment company, now called Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments Company.

A deal with Northrop, however, would far overshadow these purchases


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