Warplanes: Smarter Robotic Aircraft

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October 15, 2020: In September 2020 an Israeli Heron TP UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) made several round trips between the largest airport in the country (Ben Gurion, outside Tel Aviv) to Ein Shemer airbase 50 kilometers to the north. Each time the Heron TP landed at Ben Gurion, it used its automatic landing software. This means one more UAV becomes even more automated. Commercial aircraft pioneered the use of automatic landing software and most commercial aircraft landings are now carried out by the software with the pilots standing by if needed. Starting over a decade ago the pilots rarely had to intervene and the automated landings were preferred by pilots and passengers because, on average, the automated landings were more precise and “soft”, as in the passengers had a hard time sensing when the aircraft landing gear had made contact with the airstrip. While software-controlled landing systems have been around for decades, landing on a moving air field (an aircraft carrier) is considerably more complex than the usual situation (landing on an airfield). Dealing with carrier landings required more powerful hardware and software. Despite all that a U.S. Navy X-47B UAV made the first aircraft carrier landing in 2013.

The 4.6-ton Heron TP is also equipped with the Long Runner operating system that enables automatic landings and takeoffs while the UAV human operator is at a distant location responding to airport traffic control instructions via a satellite link. Long Runner is also able to handle the additional navigation sensors and electronics that meet the NATO STANAG 4671 standards for UAVs allowed to operate in commercial airspace. STANAG 4671 has become the world standard for this. The new Heron TP capabilities means that when the German military replaces all their current Herons with Heron TPs, they can save some money by basing their Herron TPs in Germany rather than in Israel or some foreign combat zone. For years Germany based its large UAVs in Israel where it was actually cheaper to base them. German UAV operators and maintainers are trained in Israel and the climate and geography of Israel are more similar to where the German Herons operate overseas than the generally poor flying conditions in Germany.

Herons are built by IAI (Israeli Aerospace Industries) while Elbit, another Israeli firm, produces the similar Hermes UAVs. The 1.6-ton Hermes 900 has similar STANAG 4671 software and equipment is completing its flight testing so the Hermes 900 will be certified to operate in commercial airspace. Switzerland is the first foreign customer for the Hermes 900 and that sale was made possible by the STANAG 4671 capability.

The Israeli Air Force has been using Hermes UAVs since 2013 and since then eight foreign countries have bought Hermes UAVs, mainly the 900 model equipped for offshore patrol. Iceland, for example, uses Hermes to patrol its large, and often overcast, offshore areas containing large quantities of commercially valuable fish. These fishing grounds are a major economic resource for Iceland and foreign trawlers will often try to sneak in and make off with a boatload of illegally caught fish. Using manned aircraft for fisheries protection is much more expensive. In the last few decades airborne sensors have become more capable as well as small, lighter and cheaper. Now it is possible to send out a UAV to monitor offshore waters with radar and other sensors. Elbit pioneered the use of high-performance sensors on its Hermes UAVs and most of the export sales are for offshore patrol where STANAG 4671 compliance is less of an issue.

Herons are the primary large UAV of the Israeli military. The 1.2-ton Heron 1 entered service in 2005 and in 2014 an upgraded 1.45-ton Heron 1, nicknamed Super Heron, entered service. This model uses a more powerful engine that burns diesel instead of aviation gas. The main improvements for the Super Heron are mainly the result of the more powerful (200 HP versus 115 HP) engine. This increases cruising speed to 210 kilometers an hour, provides for a faster climb rate and greater maneuverability.

Heron 1, because it was so similar to the MQ-1 Predator, sold well to foreign customers who could not obtain the MQ-1. Germany, India, Turkey, Russia, France, Brazil, El Salvador, the United States, Canada, and Australia have either bought, leased, or licensed manufactured the Heron at one time or another. Competition with the Elbit Hermes UAVs kept both IAI and Elbit alert to new developments. As a result, tiny Israel is a major (word wide) developer and manufacturer of large UAVs as well as source of most STANAG 4671 compliant UAVs.

 


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