Naval Air: Indian Robots Rule the Seas



March 28, 2007: India is building a UAV base in the Andaman islands, so as to patrol the eastern sea approaches to the Indian coast. The UAVs will be looking for smugglers and terrorists. The Andamans are a string of nearly 600 islands (most uninhabited), that are closer to Thailand, than they are to India (which owns them). The islands extend south nearly to Indonesia, and thus cover traffic coming through the Malacca Straights.


India activated its first UAV maritime reconnaissance squadron (the 342nd) over a year ago. That unit has Israeli equipment (eight Searcher II UAVs and four Herons). The Searcher II san stay aloft for 16 hours at a time. The Heron is similar to the U.S. Predator, and can stay up for fifty hours at a time. The radar and vidcam sensors enable the UAVs to provide unprecedented coverage on short notice. Israel is also using a version of the Heron for maritime reconnaissance. Israel is particularly eager for these UAVs to succeed at maritime recon, for that would open up a huge market for Israeli made UAVs and sensors. Israel has been the leader in UAV technology for over two decades, and has been supplying India with UAVs to the Indian navy for four years now.


Maritime patrol is a job that consists of many hours in the air looking for whatever among not much. Boring as hell for humans, but ideal work for robots. While the U.S. is experimenting with the large, and expensive, Global Hawk UAV, Israel (which really only has to worry about coastal patrols) developed a new version of the old Heron, called the Mahatz I. One thing that makes UAVs for maritime patrol possible, or at least practical, is cheaper and more capable sensors. In the case of the Mahatz I, the radar used (synthetic aperture radar), works with onboard software to provide automatic detection, classification and tracking of what is down there. Human operators ashore, or on a ship or in an aircraft, are alerted if they want to double check with video cameras on the UAV. Also carried are sensors that track the sea state (how choppy it is). For this kind of work, one of the most important things is reliability. While the Mahatz I is a bit smaller (at 1.2 tons) than the Predator, it is still pretty expensive (over $5 million each.) You don't want to lose them over open water. The Mahatz I can stay up for 52 hours at a time, although to provide plenty of margin for error, the usually patrol will be about 35 hours, cruising at about 200 kilometers an hour. The Andaman chain is nearly 500 kilometers long, so UAVs can patrol it, and adjacent waters, rather easily. India has become a pioneer in UAV use for maritime reconnaissance, and their experience will be observed closely by other naval powers.