U.S. and Israeli firms are getting into the rent-a-UAV business in a big way. In addition to military customers, there are also police and civilian users. UAVs are particularly useful for peacekeeping operations, or for emergencies (natural disasters or military situations where it would take too long to order UAVs from a manufacturer, and too expensive to own them anyway. Several nations that have sent troops to Afghanistan, have found it useful to rent UAVs to provide their soldiers with essential reconnaissance capabilities.
Turkeys current campaign against Kurdish separatists along the Iraqi border was supposed to include Israeli UAVs that had been ordered several years before. But problems with a Turkish component supplier delayed delivery. So the Turks leased UAVs from Israel and the U.S. to fill the gap. The U.S. Navy leased some UAVs to operate off warships searching for pirates off Somalia. The leasing company could deliver the UAV systems, and technical personnel to quickly train sailors to operate the aircraft. Purchasing the UAVs would take years, but the leasing companies can deliver in months, or sooner, depending on what the customer wants to pay.
Israeli firms offer a full range of UAVs, from Predator class aircraft, to micro (under ten pound) models. The major American leasing firm, Boeing, offers 40 pound Scan Eagle, and two helicopter UAVs (the YMQ-18A and the similar, but still developmental, Unmanned Little Bird). The YMQ-18A is also known as the A160T Hummingbird, and is in service with SOCOM.
The YMQ-18A was developed as part of a U.S. Department of Defense effort to create a helicopter UAV that could stay in the air for over twelve hours at a time. The most recent test had a YMQ-18A staying in the air for 18.7 hours, at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, while carrying a 300 pound load (to simulate a typical sensor package). This set a record for unmanned UAVs weighing between half a ton and 2.5 tons. When the YMQ-18A landed, it still had 90 minutes worth of fuel left. The first flight test of the Hummingbird Unmanned Aerial Vehicle took place seven years ago.
The YMQ-18A is a small helicopter, able to fly under remote control or under its own pre-programmed control. The three ton vehicle has a top speed of 255 kilometers an hour, and was originally designed to operate for up to 40 hours carrying a payload of 300 pounds. Max payload is over half a ton. Maximum altitude was to be about 30,000 feet, and its advanced flight controls were to be capable of keeping it airborne in weather that would ground manned helicopters.
The Unmanned Little Bird is a UAV version of the MD-530F (which has long served SOCOM as the MH-6.) This is a 1.6 ton aircraft that, in UAV mode, can be used for scouting, or delivering supplies.
The leasing companies also sell the UAVs to military organizations, and can equip the aircraft with weapons if the user has the legal authority to use such configurations.