Nations Racing to Overtake U.S. Lead in Drone Development
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Over the past 15 years, U.S. defense contractors have pioneered the development of unmanned aircraft and have produced some of the most famous and widely-used drones on the market, but international companies are trying to strip away that technical advantage by building comparable systems.
At the International Defense Exposition and Conference this week, drone manufacturers displayed their newest wares, hoping to grab a piece of the drone market.
Italy’s Piaggio Aerospace showed off its P-1HH Hammerhead medium altitude, long endurance drone prototype, which made its first flight last December.
European efforts to develop an indigenous MALE drone have lagged for years, said Francescomaria Tuccillo, Piaggio’s senior vice president of governmental sales.
In 2014, Airbus Defense and Space, Dassault Aviation and Alenia Aermacchi — of England, France and Italy, respectively — announced their plans to build an unmanned aerial system by 2020 that will meet the requirements of all three countries.
“They are talking and talking, projects, ideas,” Tuccillo said. “It’s only on paper, and there’s no money. … But now there is a platform that is already flying.”
The company plans to continue testing the aircraft and have a finalized product ready by the end of the year, said Rossella Daverio, Piaggio’s senior vice president of communications. “We would like to be the first MALE to be certified and produced in Europe.”
The Hammerhead has a maximum speed of 450 miles per hour and a 4,400 nautical-mile range. With a 500-pound payload, it can fly a maximum of 16 hours.
Unlike other MALE drones such as General Atomics' Predator and Reaper, the Hammerhead is not weaponized. However, the Hammerhead “is better because its faster,” Tuccillo asserted. “It has a double engine. … A double engine means it is more secure. If one engine is failing, the other one can save the aircraft.”
Also, because it was derived from one of the company’s civil airplanes, the P-180 Avanti II, Tuccillo believes it will be more easily certifiable for civil airspace once regulations are developed.
Mubadala, an investment group owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, holds a controlling share of the company and has continued to contribute research-and-development funds while other European manufacturers have faltered in making their own MALE aircraft, Tuccillo said.
That may give Piaggio a leg up in funding, but the company must adhere to Italian, European Union and NATO export restrictions on drones, he added. So even though the system is funded by Emirati money, it's possible that it may never be sold to the UAE armed forces.
South Africa’s Denel also showcased its Snyper drone, which wrapped up testing last year, said Sello Ntsihlele, executive manager for unmanned aircraft.
"In unmanned aircraft systems there's a growing interest and we are one of the few players that can offer an alternative outside of the U.S. and other NATO nations,” he said. The Middle East would be a target market, he added.
The Snyper is armed with up to four IMPI-S missiles with a 3.7 mile range. It can be outfitted with multiple payloads, such as optical sensor and a synthetic aperture radar on its nose, he said. The aircraft has a 16-hour endurance, and has a range of 155 miles.
“Testing of the weapons is underway,” he said. “We expect the testing to be finished in the next 12 to 18 months.”
Uconsystem Inc. is one of three manufacturers of drones in South Korea, and the only one who specializes in small, tactical systems, said Ui Chung Park, who works in the company’s sales department. The company was established in 2001 and has since sold its UAS to the South Korean army and marine corps.
Its most successful offering to date is the RemoEye-006, a bungee-launched system that it is producing for the Korean army, he said. The 006 has a nine-foot wingspan and a range of about nine miles. It can fly in the air up to two hours before running out of power. Uconsystem’s contract for 500 units ends in 2017.
The Korean marine corps have also procured two hand-launched RemoEye-002B systems. The 002B model has a six-foot wingspan and a one-hour endurance, according to company materials. It has a range of about six feet and can fly up to 50 miles per hour.
Uconsystem has sold ground control stations to the UAE but has yet to break into the market with its unmanned systems. The problem, Park said, is that Middle Eastern countries favor larger, long-range systems and don’t yet understand the value of smaller drones.
“It’s very difficult to break through,” he said. “We have a lot of competitors.”
Much like the United States, the UAE is trying to grow unmanned technologies at home in its universities. Students at Khalifia University — founded in 2007 by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin
Zayed Al Nahyan — can design and develop their own drones at its robotics lab, said its president Tod Laursen.
Students exhibited some of their own unmanned aircraft designs at IDEX, including one small UAS built to help dissipate fog at airports, he said.
“If you go around to show like this, you understand very quickly why the UAE … is interested in knowing about and having a workforce that’s trained and technologically able to deal with autonomous technologies,” he said. “The government is not always wanting to rely on outside contractors for the know how.”
The university is organizing the Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge, the first of which will be held in 2016. Similar in vein to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge, the government will award $5 million total prize money in order to stoke innovative technologies and bring them to Abu Dhabi.
“Really the idea is to interest the best research teams in the world, the Stanfords, the [Carnegie Mellon Universities], to enter robotics into this challenge,” and, by proxy, expose students and industry in the UAE to first-rate technologies and scientists, he said.