An Israeli UAV manufacturer recently announced a $153 million sale of over a thousand UAVs to an unnamed Southeast Asian nation. Since the order involves a lot of Thor quadcopters and small Skylark UAVs as well as some larger Hermes 450 models from Elbit, the list of possible customers was short. The name of the customer won’t stay a secret forever. It may be the Philippines because that country was known to be discussing a similar $180 million deal and is already using some Elbit UAVs.
Elbit is one of the pioneers in military UAV development and is still one of the major suppliers. Thor is one example of why. This is a military-grade quadcopter. That means it is more rugged than comparable commercial models and has secure (difficult to jam or eavesdrop on) communications. Thor has an endurance of 75 minutes and operates as high as 650 meters (2,000 feet). The comm-link is capable of operating in built-up areas where normal line-of-sight communications do less well. Thor became available in 2017.
In 2016 the fixed-wing Skylark 3 UAV entered service. This is a 45 kg (99 pound) UAV with a 10 kg (22 pound) payload, an electric motor and an endurance of six hours. It is launched via a vehicle-mounted catapult and can operate up to a hundred kilometers from the ground station. Skylark 3 is an improved Skylark 2, which entered service in 2007 and was a little smaller and had less range (60 kilometers from the base station). Like Skylark 2, Skylark 3 is intended for use by brigades and divisions.
Skylark has served the Israeli military well. In 2008, after four years of evaluation and further development, the Israeli Army adopted the Skylark 1 LE UAV as standard equipment for its combat battalions. A more capable Skylark 1 LEX model replaced the LE model in 2015. While Skylark began as a slightly larger rival for the popular U.S. Raven (a 2 kg/4.3 pound aircraft with one hour endurance), the Israelis found that a slightly larger UAV (7.5 kg/16.5 pounds, three hours endurance) fit the needs of battalion and company commanders better. Each Skylark 1 LEX system consists of three aircraft, three vidcams (two day, one night) and a ground control unit (a laptop and some radio gear). The Skylark 1 LEX can fly as high as 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) and operate up to 40 kilometers from the operator while carrying a payload of up to 1.2 kg (2.6 pounds).
Like the Raven, Skylark 1 LEX is battery operated and very quiet. It is launched with an elastic cord (a bungee cord will do), and lands with the help of a reusable airbag. The army bought several hundred systems, with each battalion getting two or more systems. Skylark had already been exported to countries that have used the UAV in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several Israeli police and paramilitary organizations have also been using Skylark over the past four years, and it has proved very useful for counter-terror operations.
The Hermes 450 entered production in 1998 and within a decade became the primary UAV for the Israeli armed forces and a popular export item. Twenty or more Hermes 450s were in action each day during the 2006 war in Lebanon. That led to an expansion of the Hermes fleet. The Hermes 450s is a 450 kg (992 pound) aircraft with a payload of up to 180 kg. It can also carry Hellfire missiles and is 6.5 meters (20 feet long) with a 11.3 meter (35 foot) wingspan. It can stay in the air for up to 20 hours per sortie and fly as high as 6,500 meters (20,000 feet). In the last few years, some Hermes 450s have been armed, with two Hellfire missiles along with a laser designator. Most Hermes 450 users prefer the original, unarmed, version because it provides maximum endurance and a larger sensor payload. An individual Hermes 450 costs less than $4 million.
Hermes 450 was one of the first large UAVs to be equipped with automatic takeoff and landing software. Operators are easy to train because Hermes 450 flight controls were designed for ease of use. The navigation system uses GPS (and INS backup) which has allowed many users to carry out Hermes 450 sorties without any need for operator action. An operator is always in contact, in case something unexpected is spotted or there is a malfunction. The operator can control a Hermes 450 up to 300 kilometers away but the Hermes 450 can operate at longer distances on automatic. The Hermes 450 is so adept at robotic operation that it is common for one operator to control two Hermes 450s at once. Hermes 450 was the first large UAV to use a collision avoidance system that enabled it to be used in airspace containing commercial aviation.
Buying 1,000 for 153 million means that most of them are Skylarks and Thors plus a dozen or so Hermes 450s. In this case, the base price per UAV would be only about 70 percent of the contract with the rest going to training, tech support and establishing maintenance capabilities.