January 28, 2009:
After four years of testing and development, Israel is replacing manned maritime aircraft, which patrol along its coast, with UAVs. The current patrol force consists of three Seascan aircraft, which are modified versions of the Israeli made Westwind executive jet. This ten ton aircraft has a seven man crew and is equipped with a search radar, and can carry missiles. The Seascan has an endurance of six hours, and has been used for maritime reconnaissance for over thirty years.
The 1.1 ton Heron UAV, which enters service this year, can stay in the air for 30 hours or more, and has a payload of 500 pounds. This can include a search radar. Using the Heron, instead of the Seascan, will save a lot of money, and provide better coverage. The Seascan aircraft are about at the end of their useful lives.
It was four years ago that Israel first began using some UAVs for maritime patrol. The United States has also been experimenting with this, as it is pretty clear that UAVs are ideal for this job. Maritime patrol consists of many hours in the air looking for whatever among not much. Boring as hell for humans, but ideal work for robots. While the U.S. is experimenting with the large, and expensive, Global Hawk, Israel (which really only has to worry about coastal patrols) is using a new version of the old, reliable, Heron, called the Mahatz I.
One thing that makes UAVs for maritime patrol possible, or at least practical, is cheaper and more capable sensors. In the case of the Mahatz I, the radar used (synthetic aperture radar), works with onboard software to provide automatic detection, classification and tracking of what is down there. Human operators ashore, or on a ship or in an aircraft, are alerted if they want to double check using video cameras on the UAV. Also carried are sensors that track the sea state (how choppy it is).
For this kind of work, one of the most important things is reliability. While the Heron/ Mahatz I is a bit smaller (at 1.2 tons) than the Predator, it is still pretty expensive (over $5 million each.) You don't want to lose them over open water. What the Israeli navy will be doing is finding out just how reliable the Mahatz I is when doing a lot of maritime patrol.