While the American Predator UAV gets most of the publicity, the similar Israeli Heron also first flew twenty years ago and nearly equals Predator production (360). Moreover Heron has been exported to more foreign countries for a wider range of uses (especially maritime patrol). Heron is the primary heavy UAV for the Israeli military, which makes sense as it was Israel, not the United States that pioneered UAVs of this type. It was the Israeli successes in UAV technology that motivated an American firm (General Atomics) to create the MQ-1 Predator.
Israel continues to produce a lot of Herons while Predator production has sharply declined as orders from the CIA and U.S. Air Force disappear. Part of the reason for continued production of Heron is the development of new variants. In early 2014 Israel rolled out a new model of its Heron I (or “Shoval”). Called the Super Heron it is a little heavier (1.45 tons) than the earlier model and uses a more powerful engine that burns diesel instead of aviation gas. The main improvements for the Super Heron are mainly the result of the more powerful (200 HP versus 115 HP) engine. This increases cruising speed to 210 kilometers an hour, provides for a faster climb rate and greater maneuverability.
The Heron 1, because it was so similar to the Predator has sold well to foreign customers who cannot obtain the MQ-1. In addition to being one of the primary UAVs for the Israeli armed forces security organizations from India, Turkey, Russia, France, Brazil, El Salvador, the United States, Canada, and Australia have either bought, leased, or licensed manufactured the Heron.
The original Heron 1 weighs about the same (1.2 tons) as the Predator and has similar endurance (40 hours). Heron 1 has a slightly higher ceiling (10 kilometers/30,000 feet, versus 8 kilometers) than Predator and software which allows it to automatically take off, carry out a mission, and land. Not all American large UAVs can do this. Heron 1 cost about $5 million each although the Israelis are willing to be flexible on price. Heron 1 does have a larger wingspan (16.5 meters/51 feet) than the Predator (13.2 meters/41 feet) and a payload of about 137 kg (300 pounds). The Super Heron has a payload of 450 kg (990 pounds) and stay in the air for 45 hours.
Super Heron was designed to respond to requests from many users, especially export customers who like to use Heron for maritime patrol over long coasts (as in India) and need more payload, endurance and maneuverability to deal with the nasty weather sometimes encountered at sea. The larger payload also makes it easier to arm the Super Heron. Israel exports most of these UAVs, largely because they are all very much “combat proven”.
The U.S. did produce one major Predator variant, the U.S. Army MQ-1C Grey Eagle. This UAV weighs 1.5 tons, carries 135.4 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 kg (500 pounds) of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of 30 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. MQ-1C has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The MQ-1C can carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator) or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. The army originally wanted to buy 500 of these, but the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had that cut to 152, with about 80 built so far. The U.S. restricts exports of large UAVs much more than Israel so there have been no foreign buyers for the MQ-1C yet.