War on Terrorism Boosts Deployment of Mini-UAVs As featured in “Aviation Week & Space Technology”

July 09, 2002

Small man-portable reconnaissance drones are finally seeing action as the war on terrorism brings home ground troops' need to see over the next hill. Close-up on-ground battles in Afghanistan have pushed the services to order for the first time significant quantities of mini-unmanned aerial vehicles (mini-UAVs) for operational use. The U.S. Special Operations Command (Socom) has ordered over 80 mini-UAVs based on the AeroVironment Pointer, more than all prior Pointer orders combined since the hand-launched 8.4-ft.-span aircraft became available in 1989. The order came from emergency funds to fight terrorism, and the aircraft may already be operating in Afghanistan. The Air Force's Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom AFB, Mass., has started the FPASS program, ordering an initial batch of 4-ft.-span mini-drones from the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. It is a quick reaction program for rapid fielding, in part to detect people with shoulder-fired missiles lurking to attack aircraft, and will lead to a competition for more drones. Both AeroVironment and Lockheed Martin have several other mini-drone programs underway that are short of production.

"There's a lot more interest post-9/11," said Eric Knutson, Lockheed Martin program manager for the Sentry Owl family of mini-UAVs, from which FPASS is derived. "Before 9/11, we focused on technologies, wringing out the impossible. Now the services tell us they need hardware, forget the reports."

"With these aircraft, forces can quickly see not too far away," said Robert F. Curtin, AeroVironment vice president. "It fills an information hole for them."

Interest in small UAVs is also growing rapidly in other areas of the world, particularly in Europe, which will acquire an estimated 500 vehicles within the next three years, primarily for testing and evaluation.

Filling roughly the same niche as Raven is the Naval Research Laboratory's Dragon Eye mini-drone. NRL fixed the outer shape as a twin-engine 4 ft. X 1-ft. rectangular flying wing, and it is being produced by AeroVironment and BAI in Maryland. Control is via a laptop, and imagery is viewed with TV goggles, instead of a hooded TV screen. Operational range is 5-10 km. (3-6 mi.).

AeroVironment is working on an enlarged Pointer, called Puma. It is also electrically powered and is to have more capability, including 2.5-3-hr. endurance.

In Europe, the area of greatest activity may be in France, which is working across a broad area embracing micro-UAVs and mini-UAVs.

French aerospace research and development agency Onera is studying a future generation of micro-UAVs for urban warfare applications that would be capable of entering buildings. The 5-million-euro ($4.9-million), four-year project, called Remanta, is investigating both ornithopter and vibrating wing concepts.

The study brings together a multidisciplinary team that is focusing as much on key technologies such as artificial muscles, micro electro-mechanical systems, micro-control and lightweight structures as aerodynamics and architecture. The objective is to prepare the way for a workable design that could be fielded between 2010-15.

Initially, engineers are targeting sizes of 15-40 cm. (6-16 in.), although final designs will be smaller. "Because of the difficulties encountered, we have adopted a strategy different from that in the U.S., starting large and then working down," said Rene Mathurin, who is responsible for UAV development at the French defense procurement agency DGA. "Experience in the U.S., which aimed at under 15 cm. initially and now appears to be looking at bigger sizes, seems to bear out the soundness of our approach."

The DGA, which is funding the Onera work, is also sponsoring a pair of medium-term initiatives aimed at developing somewhat larger hovering miniature UAVs for use in exterior urban warfare environments.

Last week, the DGA unveiled a 1.6-million-euro three-year university contest intended to generate breakthroughs in miniature UAV design. The contest, patterned after one already in existence in the U.S., will downselect 20 proposals for a flyoff under operational conditions, with the winner getting a 15,000-euro cash prize. Each team will be eligible for up to 40,000 euros in public financing to build their UAVs, which can be up to 70 cm. in length. To start in September, the competition will be open to graduate students of any nationality, but only French citizens will be eligible for public financing. Interested parties should consult www.onera.fr or www.defense.gouv.fr/dga.

In parallel, the DGA plans to shortly issue a request for proposal (RFP) to industry for a 40-cm. miniature UAV demonstrator (AW&ST June 17, p. 63). A dozen or so firms have already shown an interest in tendering, according to Mathurin.

The best ideas will be integrated into an operational procurement to be launched in 2006. Several hundred units are to be acquired under this program, which seeks to have operational UAVs in infantry hands by 2007-08, Mathurin said.

In the nearer term, the DGA plans in 2003-04 to issue RFPs for larger (50 cm.-1.5-meter) mini-UAVs that could be fielded by dedicated servicemen at the battalion level. Around 100-150 units would be procured, for deployment toward mid-decade.

About AeroVironment, Inc. (AV)

AeroVironment (NASDAQ: AVAV) provides customers with more actionable intelligence so they can proceed with certainty. Based in California, AeroVironment is a global leader in unmanned aircraft systems and tactical missile systems, and serves defense, government and commercial customers. For more information visit www.avinc.com.

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