x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Eagle eye in the sky creates a buzz

Although little bigger than a model aircraft, a drone built by a subsidiary of Boeing has proven capabilities. And those capabilities are proving very appealing to customers in the Middle East and around the world.

An X-47B completes its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base. US Navy / Northrop Grumman / LTJG Shawn P Eklund / Reuters
An X-47B completes its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base. US Navy / Northrop Grumman / LTJG Shawn P Eklund / Reuters

As the Farnborough International Airshow wrapped up this month, among orders won by the US aircraft making giant Boeing was a batch for its highly successful small, unmanned air vehicle, the ScanEagle.

Empty, it weighs slightly more than 12kg, has a wingspan of 3 metres and looks like a glorified remote-controlled model aircraft. But the ScanEagle is no toy and contracts from the Australian and Singapore navies as well as the Japanese Self Defence Force have been secured.

To listen to its makers, Boeing and its partner Insitu, the ScanEagle is a mini-miracle worker.

If you want to patrol your coastline, or your pipelines, require greater search and rescue reach, or need to watch your streets for urban unrest, this little fellow is the jack-of-all-trades, according to the promotional blurb.

It is also in demand, with Insitu reporting "additional contracts with Middle Eastern nations for the ScanEagle" had been agreed, without elaborating on the buyers.

So why all the secrecy? The answer is in its capability.

On a remote scrubby hillside locals call "high desert" above the Columbia River Gorge in northern Oregon in the United States, Insitu has a small circle of caravans not unlike an old Western wagon train - except these bristle with antennae.

To the side are what looks like two pieces of partially assembled fairground rides. This where Insitu puts drones such as the ScanEagle, through their paces.

Inside one caravan, amid a modest array of desktop computer clutter, sits the pilot. Outside, Insitu has set up a little rack of television monitors so guests can watch ScanEagle watching them, watching it.

The pilots don't actually "fly" the drones. The aircraft does that itself, requiring the pilot only to tell it where to go, how fast and how high. That leaves the pilot free to work the drone's payload, which, according to Insitu, can be almost anything you want.

"A key design feature of ScanEagle is its internal avionics bay," says Ryan Hartman, the Insitu senior vice-president of business development. "The avionics bay allows seamless integration of new sensors to meet emerging customer requirements and ensures the vehicle will be able to incorporate the latest technology as it becomes available.

"ScanEagle demonstrated high-speed wireless communications [using US] National Security Agency-approved … classified technology in its avionics bay, streaming video and voice-over IP communication."

What does that mean? In a 2004 test flight, data was sent from a ground control station over a secure high-bandwidth network to ScanEagle 29km away, then instantaneously relayed to ground personnel 9km from the unmanned air vehicle (UAV).

"The flight demonstrated the capability for troops on the ground to receive critical information and situational awareness in a secure environment, key elements in creating a network-centric battlefield," says Mr Hartman.

Back on the Oregon hillside, the ScanEagle is launched from a pneumatic catapult and is pretty soon out of earshot and lost against the backdrop of high, scudding cloud. Once airborne it is capable of climbing to more than 6,000 metres and staying up for 20 hours but the optimum observation height is much lower. It can fly at up to 75 knots (139kph), with an average cruising speed of 60 knotsand has operational control range of more than 100km.

At US$70,000 (Dh257,109) each, not counting whatever high-tech gizmos it is packing, the ScanEagle is at the modest end of UAV technology.

Further up the chain, there are aircraft such as the Hellfire missile-armed Predators, or the very large Phantom Eye, a twin-engined drone with a 46-metre wingspan capable of carrying a 204kg payload and with an innovative and environmentally-friendly liquid-hydrogen propulsion system.

That allows the aircraft to stay on station for up to four days, providing continuous monitoring over large areas, from an altitude of up to 19,500 metres.

Last month, Northop Grumman concluded the first major phase of flight-testing the X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

While at Edwards, the X-47B aircraft reached altitudes exceeding 4,500 metres and demonstrated multiple manoeuvres necessary for carrier operations, including extending and retracting a tail hook, and completing an autonomous "touch-and-go" landing.

The Northrop Grumman team is currently finalising the software required to begin carrier suitability testing, including catapult launches, arrested landings and wireless remote deck-handling.

And the world has only just started developing the UAV concept, according to Teal Group, a US aerospace and defence market analysis firm in Virginia. Its World Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems, Market Profile and Forecast 2012 report estimates UAV spending will almost double during the next decade to $89bn.

Some 40 manufacturers worldwide are involved and UAVs are likely to remain the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry.

"The UAV market will continue to be strong despite cuts in defence spending," says Philip Finnegan, Teal Group's director of corporate analysis and an author of the report.

"UAVs have proved their value in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and will continue to be a high priority for militaries in the United States and worldwide. Few now question that [the UAV] is the centrepiece of our global war on terrorism, with production beginning for major endurance UAV systems and as more sophisticated sensors are developed for smaller and smaller UAVs."

Although to date, ScanEagle's main customers have been the US Navy and the US Marines, the almost 1,500 delivered have not all been for the military.

ScanEagles have been used to help fight wildfires in the western US, Iraq has bought them for pipeline security and the government of Queensland's department of agriculture in Australia has used them to help control the spread of the class 1 pest plant Siam weed.

As of May, ScanEagle has exceeded 600,000 combat flight hours. In eight years of rapid innovation, it has efficiently delivered uninterrupted tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, while the manufacturer has introduced scores of significant upgrades.

"Insitu takes lessons learned from the field and relays them to engineers and programme managers," says Steve Morrow, the chief executive of Insitu.

"As a result, cost-effective, game-changing technology enhancements are fielded rapidly without interruption in service.

"ScanEagle is modular - it can be reconfigured in the field to suit the mission - so even earlier models can be updated for flight with today's capability.

"It's hard to articulate the meaning of 600,000 flight hours, so it might be easier to think about what it means to one aircraft," he added.

"Our 513th production ScanEagle completed its first mission in the extreme combat environment of Iraq in April 2008. Since then, it has accrued more than 3,500 flight hours and is still deployed today."

Whoever the unnamed Middle East customers are, they've just acquired a very cheap and highly effective way of keeping an eye on what is going on out there.

dblack@thenational.ae

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