Intelligence: Cheap Surveillance

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May 4, 2018: Poland is a large country with lots of borders that need watching. In addition to 440 kilometers of coastline then 210 kilometers of land border with Russia, 103 kilometers with Lithuania, 416 kilometers with Belarus and 529 kilometers with Ukraine. The western borders (467 kilometers with Germany, 790 kilometers with the Czech Republic and 541 kilometers with Slovakia) are less of a problem but still sometimes need more attention. The solution for Poland had been the mid-size American UAVs and Poland is now using the second generation of these UAVs.

Poland has ordered two RQ-21A Blackjack UAV systems (five UAVs, two control systems plus launch and maintenance gear and some spare parts). The RQ-21A is basically a larger ScanEagle which it is replacing. In 2010 Poland bought over a dozen ScanEagle UAVs. Each of these weighs 18 kg (40 pounds), has a ten foot (three meter) wingspan, and can stay in the air for up to 15 hours per flight and fly as high as 5,200 meters (16,000 feet). The aircraft carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. The UAV can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the controller. The ScanEagle is launched from a catapult and landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a fifty foot pole. This makes it possible to operate the UAV from the helicopter pad on the stern (rear) of a warship. Each ScanEagle costs about $100,000. Poland found the ScanEagles worked as advertised and that drove the decision to buy some Blackjack systems.

RQ-21A is a 61 kg (135 pound) UAV, which has a 4.9 meter (16 foot) wingspan and can fly as high as 5,900 meters (19,500 feet) at a cruise speed of 100 kilometers an hour. RQ-21A can stay in the air up to 16 hours and can carry a payload of 18 kg (39 pounds). It uses the same takeoff and landing equipment as the Scan Eagle. RQ-21A also uses many of the ScanEagle sensors, in addition to new ones that were too heavy for ScanEagle, like a high definition (synthetic aperture) radar. The additional weight of the RQ-21 makes it more stable in bad weather or windy conditions and can operate up to 100 kilometers from the operator.

The U.S. Marine Corps and Navy began receiving RQ-21A Blackjack UAVs in early 2014 the marines had to work out some kinks in using theirs and only declared the RQ-21A ready for regular (battlefield) service in January 2016. This came after a lot of field testing and tweaking. Some RQ-21A systems were sent to Afghanistan in mid-2014 for field tests and were soon operating in combat.

The ScanEagle entered service in 2005 and weighs 22 kg (48 pounds). It has a 3.2 meter (ten foot) wingspan and uses day and night video cameras. It uses a catapult for launch and can be landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a 16 meter (fifty foot) pole. There is also a smaller CLRE (Compact Launch and Recovery System) for ship use. On land Scan Eagle, can also land on any flat, solid surface.

The Scan Eagle can stay in the air for up to 24 hours per flight and fly as high as 5 kilometers (16,000 feet). Scan Eagles cruising speed is 110 kilometers an hour and it can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the ground controller. Scan Eagle carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. Scan Eagle has been flying for over a decade now and has been in military service since 2005. The marines will also be using the RQ-21A from ships. The Polish Navy wants to use helicopter type UAVs from its ships so all the ScanEagle and Blackjack UAVs are used by the ground forces and, when necessary, for border patrol. These two UAVs give Poland an inexpensive way to carry out aerial reconnaissance.

 


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