Warplanes: Old But Improved UAVs

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October 18, 2012: Israel recently rolled out new models of its Heron TP and Shoval UAVs. These two are similar to the American Reaper and Predator respectively. The main improvements for the Heron are assurances that all the upgrades on the Heron over the past year or so have been tested thoroughly and found OK. For the Shoval, it’s a bunch of minor tweaks and the addition of more powerful sensors, such as a system that uses four cameras.

The Heron Shoval UAV is very similar to the Predator A (or MQ-1) and is selling well to foreign customers who cannot obtain the MQ-1. In addition to being one of the primary UAVs for the Israeli armed forces, India, Turkey, Russia, France, Brazil, El Salvador, the United States, Canada, and Australia have either bought, leased, or licensed manufacture of the Heron.

The Shoval weighs about the same (1.2 tons) as the Predator and has similar endurance (40 hours). Shoval has a slightly higher ceiling (10 kilometers/30,000 feet, versus 8 kilometers) and software which allows it to automatically take off, carry out a mission, and land automatically. Not all American large UAVs can do this. Both Predator and Shoval cost about the same ($5 million), although the Israelis are willing to be more flexible on price. Shoval 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.

Last month, seven months after a Heron TP (also known as Eitan or Heron 2) UAV crashed, and all Israeli Air Force Heron TPs were grounded, the UAV was again cleared to fly. The investigation concluded that the crash was due to a manufacturing flaw, not a design flaw. For a while there were doubts about the durability and reliability of the Heron TP. While the investigation was underway some government officials called for selling off the few Heron TPs the air force had because the aircraft was too expensive (over $6 million each) to buy and operate. Israel has less expensive UAVs that get the work done at a lower cost. But the accident investigation made it clear that the Heron TP was a capable aircraft that could benefit from some more manufacturing quality control. Now the Heron TP is back on the export market.

The Heron TP entered squadron service in the Israeli Air Force (with 210 Squadron) three years ago. The UAV's first combat service was two years ago, when it was used off the coast of Gaza, keeping an eye on ships seeking to run the blockade. For that kind of work the aircraft was well suited. But so are smaller and cheaper UAVs.

Development of the Heron TP was largely completed five years ago, mainly for the export market, and the Israeli military was in no rush to buy it. There have been some export sales and the Israeli air force eventually realized that this was an ideal UAV for long range operations or for maritime patrol. But it turned out there were few missions like that.

Equipped with a powerful (1,200 horsepower) turboprop engine, the 4.6 ton Heron TP can operate at 14,500 meters (45,000 feet). That is above commercial air traffic and all the air-traffic-control regulations that discourage, and often forbid, UAVs fly at the same altitude as commercial aircraft. The Heron TP has a one ton payload, enabling it to carry sensors that can give a detailed view of what's on the ground, even from that high up. The endurance of 36 hours makes the Heron TP a competitor for the U.S. five ton MQ-9 Reaper. The big difference between the two is that Reaper is designed to be a combat aircraft, operating at a lower altitude, with less endurance, and able to carry a ton of smart bombs or missiles. Heron TP is meant mainly for reconnaissance and surveillance, and Israel wants to keep a closer, and more persistent, eye on Syria and southern Lebanon. But the Heron TP has since been rigged to carry a wide variety of missiles and smart bombs.

The Heron TP was sold to France, to serve as a Predator substitute, until a new design can be developed in France. This variant was called Harfang ("Eagle") and three were purchased three years ago and sent to Afghanistan. Within a year those three had spent 1,400 hours in the air. That's actually quite low, coming out to about one sortie a week per aircraft. There were technical problems with the Harfang and much of the time only one of the three were available for service. The Harfang usually flies missions of less than 24 hours.

Despite the technical problems with the Harfangs in Afghanistan, France ordered a fourth one. Harfang has since been given a more powerful engine and other mods, to become Harfang 2. In addition, there is a maritime patrol version. France has tried to buy Predators but the waiting list was long and French troops need UAV support right away. European aircraft manufacturers have yet to come up with a world class UAV design (like the American Predator and Reaper, or the Israeli Heron, etc). Israel stands by to supply tried and tested designs like the many models of the Heron TP.

 


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