South Korea recently revealed that one of its four Peace Eye (”Wedgetail”) AWACS (aerial early warning and control) aircraft had detected two of the three North Korean UAVs discovered in South Korea recently. North Korea was using modified versions of the commercial Chinese SKY-09P UAV. North Korea gave the SKY-09Ps a new paint job (to make it harder to spot), a muffler (to make it less detectable) and installed a different camera. The SKY-09P was used via its robotic mode, where the SKY-09P flew to pre-programmed GPS coordinates, taking digital photos over selected areas. The SKY-09Ps found in South Korea had GPS coordinates in their guidance system showing they originated and were to return to a location in North Korea.
The SKY-09P is a 12 kg (26 pound) delta wing aircraft with a wingspan of 1.92 meters (6.25 feet) propeller in the front and a payload of three kg (6.6 pounds). It is launched via a catapult and lands via a parachute. Endurance is 90 minutes and cruising speed is 90 kilometers an hour. When controlled from the ground it can go no farther than 40 kilometers from the controller. But when placed on automatic it can go about 60 kilometers into South Korea and return with photos. These things cost the North Koreans a few thousand dollars each. While South Korea says they detected two of the three crashed North Korea UAVs no other details were provided. The Chinese manufacturer denied selling anything to North Korea, but the North Koreans typically use a third party for purchases like this.
The South Korean AWACS are militarized Boeing 737 transports. These have a cruise speed of 910 kilometers an hour and the Wedgetail version has a crew of 8-12 pilots and equipment operators, who use the search radar and various other sensors. The 78 ton Wedgetail can stay in the air for more than ten hours per sortie and operate at over 13,000 meters altitude. Australia, the first to order the aircraft, called the effort "Project Wedgetail" (named for the appearance of the aircraft with its long radar structure mounted on top), thus establishing the nickname for this type of AWACS aircraft.
The Wedgetail radar can spot fighter size aircraft 370 kilometers away and frigate size ships up to 240 kilometers away. Objects as small as the SKY-09P must be a lot closer. The radar can also detect other electronic transmissions up to 850 kilometers away and has software and databases that can identify a large number of different transmissions. Acting as a pure AWACS Wedgetail can track up to 180 aircraft and guide friendly warplanes to 24 intercepts at a time.
Exact capabilities of AWACS type aircraft are never made public as this would make it easier for potential enemies to defeat the AWACS capabilities. South Korea is not, for example, claiming that its AWACS spotted and tracked the North Korean UAVs until they crashed nor are they commenting on the fact that there may have been many other successful flights of the North Korean UAVs. When it comes to high-tech electronic systems like AWACS, revealing a little simply creates more questions.