Warplanes: Vaporware And Copycats


October 7, 2017: A Chinese firm recently introduced what it described as an armed helicopter UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle); the AV500W. This one weighs 450 kg (990 pounds) and has a payload of 120 kg (264 pounds). Max speed is 170 kilometers an hour and max ceiling is 4,000 meters (12,500 feet). Endurance is four hours (loaded for combat) and eight hours (with just vidcams). The AV500W can carry four laser guided missiles and uses an onboard vidcam and laser designator to find and hit targets up to 8,000 meters distant.

The AV500W appears very similar to the earlier (2011) V750 helicopter UAV. This one weighs 757 kg (1,665 pounds) and has a payload of 80 kg (176 pounds). Max speed is 161 kilometers an hour and endurance is four hours. The V750 can fly a pre-programmed route or be controlled by a ground operator (up to 150 kilometers away). The manufacturer offered the V750 for civilian (scientific survey, search and rescue, police surveillance) and military uses.

There are over a dozen other Chinese helicopter UAVs on the market, many of them very similar in appearance and performance to foreign designs. Same pattern with missiles for these UAVs. Since 2011 China has developed lightweight UAV missiles similar to the American 50 kg Hellfire and 14 kg APKWS. The Chinese “lightweight” version is reported to weigh eight kg (18 pounds) and have a range of 5,000 meters. But this one is not for sale yet and may never be. As is often the case several Chinese manufacturers will develop similar weapons hoping to get major sales to the Chinese military or at least some export business. One of the other “lightweight” missiles under development is a appears to be a Chinese clone of the APKWS, which is basically a World War II era unguided aerial rocket with a laser guidance and control system attached.

For a long time China discouraged its defense firms of publicizing “vaporware” (products that were in development but never worked well enough to put on sale) but that seems to be changing. Meanwhile Chinese manufacturers continue to produce weapons and UAVs remarkably similar to existing Western models. That is another issue that is more of concern to foreign firms than to their Chinese competitors.

China has been known to buy and copy Western UAV designs, including helicopter UAVs meant for use at sea. For example in 2012 a Japanese warship passed by a Chinese frigate that appeared to be flying a helicopter UAV off its helicopter pad. The Japanese took photos and passed them around. At first it was noted that the helicopter looked like the Schiebel S-100 Camcopter. Schiebel is an Austrian firm which markets the S-100 in many countries via the U.S. firm Boeing Aircraft. But Schiebel continues to sell the S-100 itself, and a little digging revealed that the Chinese had bought 18 S-100s in 2010. While the three S-100s seen on the aft deck of the Chinese frigate do look like the S-100, there also appear to be some differences. It appears that a Chinese firm copied the design of S-100 and created a workable S-100 clone. Nothing new or novel there. China takes it as normal, many other nations do not.

European nations are not supposed to sell China weapons (because of an arms embargo), but the S-100s were apparently sold to Chinese police organizations (which is legal and the S-100 does have civilian users). One Chinese firm has since offered a helicopter UAV similar to the S-100. China has become more blatant in copying foreign designs and then selling them to foreign customers and competing with the original. Suing the Chinese usually does not work, as Chinese courts favor the Chinese copycats, not the original creator of the technology.

The S-100 weighs 200 kg (440 pounds), can stay aloft six hours per sortie, and operates at a max altitude of 5,500 meters (18,000 feet). Max speed is 220 kilometers an hour. So far, some 200 S-100s have been sold to military and civilian customers. Before the S-100 clone came along Chinese firms had already developed several helicopter UAV designs like the V750.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has taken the lead in this area, with several models developed in the last decade. The one most similar to the V750 is the MQ-8B Fire Scout, which is operating in Afghanistan and aboard warships. The U.S. Navy developed, and put into use, the MQ-8B. A similar model, the RQ-8B, died because the U.S. Army already had plenty of UAVs that got the job done. The navy kept Fire Scout because helicopters are more practical on most navy ships (for landings and takeoffs). Navy Fire Scouts have been successfully used on frigates (in both the Atlantic and Pacific). There is a huge demand for UAVs in Afghanistan, so the navy sent some there.

The 1.5 ton Fire Scout is based upon the Schweitzer 333 unmanned helicopter, which in turn is derived from the Schweitzer 330 commercial lightweight manned helicopter. Fire Scout has a payload of 272 kg (600 pounds), a cruising speed of 200 kilometers an hour, max altitude of 6,100 meters (20,000 feet), and endurance of eight hours. The U.S. Navy plans to acquire over 160 Fire Scouts.

Several other navies have been testing helicopter UAVs on their warships, and this type of UAV seems destined to replace a lot of manned helicopters on warships and enable smaller warships (that cannot handle the larger manned helicopters) to operate unmanned helicopters. American helicopter manufacturers have found that it is fairly easy to create unmanned versions of their existing helicopters and have done just that to gain experience with that sort of thing.