March 13, 2017:
In early 2017 Russia revealed that it had increased the number of modern UAVs in service from 180 in 2011 to over 2,000 now. The ones now in service are apparently mostly models that have been seen in action in Syria and Ukraine or operating on Russian borders. These include Zavasta, Forpost, Zala-421, Irkut-10, Orlan 10 and Eleron-3SV.
Orlan-10 is one of few UAVs that Russia has recently designed to be capable of functioning in the Arctic environment. Orlan 10 weighs about 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and can carry a payload of up to 6 kilograms of various kinds of recon equipment, including infrared cameras, or an array of multiple cameras used for creating 3-dimensional maps. Its 95 octane gasoline powered engine provides a cruise speed of 90 to 150 kilometers an hour, a service ceiling of about 5,000 meters, and a flight endurance of 18 hours. Together with control and launch equipment, the Orlan-10 costs approximately $480,000. The aircraft is launched via a portable, folding catapult, and lands by shutting down the engine and deploying a parachute.
The Eleron-3SV costs about $55,000 and is a battery powered, 4.3 kg (7.49 pounds) UAV travelling at speeds of from 70 to 130 kilometers an hour. Flight endurance of up to 2 hours, and maximum altitude of 5,000 meters (16,000 feet). It is launched by throwing it and can land by flying close to the ground and shutting its engine off.
In 2014 Russia began licensed production of the Israeli Searcher 2 UAV (as the Russian Forpost). This came after seven years of negotiations and user trials by Russian troops. The Searcher 2 is a half-ton aircraft with an endurance of 20 hours, max altitude of 7,500 meters (23,000 feet) and can operate up to 300 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 120 kg (264 pound) payload. In 2012 Searcher 2 was tested in northern Russia during cold weather and performed well despite extremely colder temperatures (especially on the ground, where it got to -30 Centigrade). In 2016 Israel suspended the Russian license for the Searcher 2, apparently because of accusations that Russia had violated the terms of license.
Back in 2004 negotiations to set up an Israeli UAV factory in Russia, as a joint venture, were stalled over potential problems with the transfer of UAV technology to Russia. The U.S. and Israel have been most successful in developing efficient UAVs in the last few decades, as a result of firms in both countries developed new technologies and manufacturing techniques that overcame many of the problems that hamper UAVs designed in Russia, China and many other countries. While UAVs are basically low-tech, putting them together so that they are effective and reliable has proved to be quite difficult. So there was some trepidation about transferring those UAV manufacturing techniques technologies to Russia, as the Russians might in turn transfer that tech, or high-grade UAVs, to countries like Iran, China, Syria or North Korea. It took a while to sort all this out. Russia also producing the Israeli Bird-Eye 400 under license as the Zastava.
Russia first approached Israel to purchase UAVs in 2007. That resulted in Russia buying over fifty aircraft, including the Bird-Eye 400, I-View MK150 and Searcher 2. The Bird-Eye 400 is a 4 kg (9 pound) micro-UAV with a maximum endurance of 80 minutes, max ceiling of 320 meters (1,000 feet) and can operate 15 kilometers from the operator. It is mainly for the use of small infantry units. The I-View MK150 is a 250 kg (550 pound) aircraft with a seven hour endurance, max altitude of 5,500 meters (17,000 feet) and can operate up to 150 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 20 kg (44 pound) payload, which enables day and night vidcams. It can take off using an airfield, or from a truck mounted launcher. It can land on an airfield or via parachute. It is usually employed to support brigades.
These current Russian UAVs are a big improvement on earlier Russian efforts and make good use of proven Western UAV design and construction technology. Most modern UAVs are not high-tech and it was always baffling why the Russians insisted on holding on to their older UAV technology for so long. What stirred the Russians to change may be the success of micro UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) like the American RQ-11 Raven. While much less capable than their bigger cousins, micro UAVs offer certain benefits not achievable before (small, cheap, reliable, easy to use and not dependent on airfields). Moreover micro UAVs can be deployed in large numbers, often by small infantry units or by artillery spotters, granting frontline ground units fast, easy, cheap and direct access to a part of surveillance capabilities that before had to be requested from and organized by higher level headquarters, which often prevented the vital intelligence from arriving to the ground troops in time, especially in poorly organized, heavily bureaucratic militaries, like those favored by China and Russia.
In addition to all the new UAVs put in service recently Russia is working on even larger and more advanced models. In 2015 a Russian firm revealed that they were developing the one ton Inokhodets (similar to the MQ-1 Predator) and the 4.5-ton Altius-M (similar to the MQ-9 Reaper) UAVs.