In late 2015 the UN arranged for a European firm (Thales) to provide a unit of three Israeli Hermes 900 UAVs along with operators, two ground stations and maintenance staff for three years’ service in northern Mali with the UN peacekeeping forces there. There was also an option to extend the contract for two more years. A British division of Thales handled this because they had experience with Hermes UAVs. By July 2016 the first Hermes 900 was operational in an airbase near Timbuktu. All three Hermes 900s were in Mali and operational by September 2016. Currently the Hermes 900s are staying in the air eight hours per sortie at a time and no more than 600 kilometers from their base. The Hermes unit is controlled by civilian UN officials in Mali, not the ones running the 12,000 peacekeepers there. As with earlier peacekeeping missions, the UAVs are unarmed and used mainly for surveillance and reconnaissance. Peacekeepers and relief workers have increasingly been using UAVs, often small, inexpensive (under $1,000 each) commercial models. But in some places, like northern Mali, Sudan or Congo large areas must be monitored and larger UAVs are needed. France and the U.S. have been using large (like Hermes 900) UAVs over northern Mali before the French forces entered in early 2013. These operate out of Niger and sometimes Mali.
The Hermes 900 is similar in size (and appearance) to the American Predator (both weighing 1.1 tons), but the Israeli vehicle is built mainly for endurance. It has a 10 meter (31 foot) wingspan. The Hermes 900 can stay in the air for 36 hours, and has a payload of 300 kg (650 pounds). The military UAVs over Mali would occasionally (and unofficially) work for the UN peacekeepers and it was that experience that led to the setting up of a UN UAV unit.