Warplanes: July 21, 2004


The latest wrinkle in UAV design is lightweight helicopters. Two models, the M65 and M80, just went into production by the Tactical Aerospace Group, for military and civilian markets. These helicopter UAVs are made of composites, meaning that they are light, corrosion is not a problem and maintenance is reduced. Both are two feet high, but the M65 is six feet long, while the M80 is seven feet. The M65 weighs 26 pounds, with fuel, plus a 24 pound payload (camera, radio and so on). This fifty pound helicopter can stay in the air for up to five hours at a time and has a cruise speed of 100 kilometers an hour. Its 4.4 horsepower engine can take it up to 13,000 feet. The M80 is slightly larger, has a 5.4 horsepower engine, a 39 pound payload and can stay in the air for eight hours. The engine used in the M65 and M80 is expensive, and reliable, providing over 2,000 hours of failure free operation between breakdowns. The ability to hover is the major advantage of these UAVs, meaning they can use sensors for detecting mines or explosives, and can be more useful in urban areas. However, because helicopters are inherently more expensive to manufacture, compared to fixed wing aircraft,  cost may be a factor in using UAVs like the M65 and M80. But, like with all UAVs, its the electronics and sensors that really run the cost up. The M65 alone, with no electronics, costs $99,650. The basic M80 goes for $118,720. One accessory you must have is the flight control system, which costs $75,000 per UAV. The lest expensive sensor is a daytime, stabilized, video camera, which costs $60,000. The cheapest ground control unit is a briefcase sized unit costing $16,000. So the cheapest version of this system is going to set you back a quarter of a million bucks. A more capable day/night video camera system will cost up to $300,000. A more elaborate ground station, operating out of a van or a hummer, can cost up to 600,000 (but allows you to do things like superimpose a map on the video coming from the UAV.) Thus a unit of these UAVs, with six UAVs and a high end ground station, could cost close to two million dollars. This is not out of line with what many fixed wing systems cost. 


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