Murphy's Law: Be Safe Or Be Gone

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September 16, 2013: Japan wants to buy some American RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs and use them for maritime reconnaissance. This would be particularly useful given the current feud with China over who owns the Senkaku Islands. These are actually islets, which are 167 kilometers northeast of Taiwan, 360 kilometers from China, and 360 kilometers southeast of Japan's Okinawa Islands and have a total area of 6.3 square kilometers. Taiwan also claims the Senkakus, which were discovered by Chinese fishermen in the 16th century and taken over by Japan in 1879. They are valuable now because of the 380 kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) nations can claim (via an international treaty) in their coastal waters. This includes fishing and possible underwater oil and gas fields. Technically parts of the Senkakus fall within the EEZs of China, Taiwan, and Japan. But Japan has controlled the Senkakus for over a century and says it will use force to retain possession. To that end, having an RQ-4 over the area on a regular basis would make it more difficult for the Chinese to carry out any surprise moves.

The problem Japan has with the RQ-4s is that they are unmanned and current Japanese law prohibits such unmanned aircraft from operating from airbases or inhabited territory. So first the Japanese armed forces have to get the laws modified and enhancements made to the RQ-4s to keep the bureaucrats happy. This was successfully done recently with unmanned helicopters used in agriculture (for crop dusting and surveillance) so there is optimism that these regulatory obstacles can be overcome.

Japan is proceeding carefully here because earlier this year Germany cancelled plans to buy five RQ-4s, and wrote off $700 million in development costs, because they found it impossible to strike a similar deal with the European Union aviation bureaucrats. Called the Euro Hawk, this German version of the RQ-4 was to be equipped with European electronics and serve as a long endurance recon aircraft. The problem was that European aviation authorities demanded extensive tests to ensure that the unmanned Euro Hawk could coexist with manned aircraft in European air space. It was determined that this process would cost over $800 million and there was no guarantee the UAV would be cleared to operate. The $300 million spent on the UAV sensors will not be lost, as these can be mounted on a manned aircraft. Japan does not want another Eurohawk debacle.

The German Euro Hawk developers did not anticipate this fatal bureaucratic obstacle and the Japanese are carefully studying what happened there. Three years ago the "Euro Hawk” RQ-4 UAV made its maiden flight in the United States and then there were hints that something unexpected was stalking Euro Hawk. This first Euro Hawk was delayed (by over a year) flying to Europe because European aviation authorities became alarmed at the danger of UAVs flying in the same air space with manned aircraft. The aviation regulators had to be convinced that the RQ-4 could be brought safely through U.S., British, and German air space. It was delivered to Germany in 2011, but has been grounded because of local aviation authorities concerns over flight safety.

Five Euro Hawks were ordered six years ago for $215 million each (half that is development cost). All five were to be delivered by 2017. These UAVs were to replace the German Atlantic 1150 Electronic Reconnaissance (ELINT) aircraft. Ten years ago an American RQ-4A was equipped with electronic eavesdropping equipment and flown to Germany for demonstration flights. The Germans were impressed enough to design modifications for the Global Hawk, which turned it into what they are calling Euro Hawk. European aviation safety authorities noticed and eventually piled on demands and regulations that killed Euro Hawk.

Euro Hawk could stay in the air for up to 30 hours at a time and would be cheaper to operate than a manned recon aircraft. Germany's Atlantic 1150 aircraft are being retired, mainly because they are too old and expensive to maintain. The Euro Hawk used electronics supplied by European manufacturers, who must now find a manned aircraft to mount them in.

Japanese RQ-4 backers are joining other nations in seeking a solution to these flight safety concerns. There are already several safety systems out there, and now they are called TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems). Back in 2008, the U.S. Air Force put together a sensor and software package for its UAVs called Peer (Pilot Electronic Eyes Radar) to give these pilotless aircraft the ability to "sense and avoid" manned aircraft. In the combat zone, the military controls the air space and can deal with UAVs the same way it does with warplanes, helicopters, and artillery fire. But these rules tolerate a higher degree of risk than civilian aviation will tolerate. The Peer suite led to further efforts. The U.S. Army has one for its larger UAVs (like the 1.5 ton MQ-1C) and the much smaller Shadow 200. There are several of these TCAS in development and close to delivery in the United States. British firm BAE has been testing its Astraea TCAS system, which uses sensors to detect aerial obstacles (bad weather, other aircraft) to UAVs. Astraea is optimized for work over coastal waters, where aircraft have to be alert to frequent rapid changes in the weather. Japan would find this particularly useful when using UAVs off its northern coast where the weather is particularly nasty. Other countries are also developing TCAS, especially for the smaller (under 200 kg/440 pounds) UAVs increasingly popular with commercial users (police, farmers, land management in general, and so on).

The Global Hawk is at 13 tons the size of a commuter airliner (like the Embraer ERJ 145). There is plenty of space for TCAS. Many people in the TCAS community were mystified at the German decision to cancel Euro Hawk because of the lack of a TCAS, but it appears there were also budget and political pressures working against Euro Hawk.

Japan, like Germany is seeking the current B version of Global Hawk, which is about ten percent larger (wingspan of 42.3 meters/131 feet and 15.5 meters/48 feet long) than the A model and can carry an additional two tons of equipment. To support that, there's a new generator that produces one-hundred and fifty percent more electrical power. The B version is a lot more reliable. Early A models tended to fail and crash at the rate of once every thousand flight hours, mostly because of design flaws. The first three RQ-4Bs entered service in 2006.

While Global Hawk is the size of a commuter airliner, it costs more than twice as much. Global Hawk can be equipped with much more powerful, and expensive, sensors than other UAVs. These more than double the cost of the aircraft. These spy satellite quality sensors (especially AESA radar) are usually worth the expense because they enable the UAV, flying at over twenty kilometers (sixty-thousand feet), to get a sharp picture of all the territory it can see from that altitude. Germany was equipping Euro Hawk with signals intelligence equipment, that collects electronic signals, and less imaging equipment.

 

 


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