Providing small naval vessels – fast patrol boats, mine counter-measures ships and small corvettes – with their own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is a cost effective way to enhance both their fighting power and survivability.
Putting a small UAV, equipped with long range cameras and possibly weapons, enhances their ability to monitor and control wide areas of sea space. This allows vessels to spot targets at long range and to give warning of approaching enemy threats.
Vessels that are not big enough to operate helicopters have long been at a disadvantage so the availability of small UAVs is transformative for them.
A variety of launch methods are available from small vessels, including hand-thrown, catapult and rotary wing systems. Hand and catapult-based UAVs are easy to launch but they require net or hook systems to recover them after missions. These often require the installation of specialist equipment on vessels decks.
Rotary wing or mini helicopter systems are easier to recover because they can land under their own power but need a flat section of deck to put down on.
Small UAVs, however, are often cheap enough to be considered disposable if they are sent on important missions.
Over the past two decades, the pace of UAV development has accelerate rapidly. New systems with improved sensors, communications and control systems are appearing in the market at regular intervals.
The AeroVironmen Puma 3 AE and Wasp AE systems are typical of hand-launched mini-UAVs. Thsee mini drones are both hand launched, allowing them to be operated in a variety of tactical scenarios where commanders need an “eye in the sky” to look over the horizon or in-land. Both the Puma and Wasp have real-time video feeds from their night vision camera, that can be viewed on a laptop or tablet computer sized terminal. Once missions are finished the drones to return to base and can be recovered in nets.
The Puma 3 AE is the big brother of the two drones, weighting in a 6.8 kilograms. It also has a bungee launch system to extend its range and endurance. It fly out to between 20 and 60 kilometres depending on its radio data link, as well as staying airborne two and half hours.
The Wasp AE weighs just over a kilogram and is optimised for short range missions up to five kilometres from its launch point. It can say in the air for just under an hour. It weighs only 190 grams and is capable of flying for 30 minutes to an hour, out to a range of 15 kilometres.
The Boeing Insitu RQ-21 Blackjack, formerly called the Integrator, is an American unmanned air vehicle designed and built by Boeing Insitu to meet a United States Navy requirement for a small tactical unmanned air system. It is a twin-boom, single-engine monoplane and weighs 61 kg. Its wingspan is 16 ft (4.9 m) and it can carry a 39 lb (18 kg) payload.
The RQ-21A Integrator first flew on 28 July 2012. It is launched and recovered using a pneumatic launcher and a recovery system known as the Skyhook. This eliminates the need for runways and enables a safe recovery and expeditionary capability for tactical missions on land or sea. A Blackjack system composed up to five air vehicles and two ground control systems.
In September 2013, the Integrator was renamed the RQ-21A Blackjack. On 28 November 2013, the US Navy awarded Boeing Insitu an $8.8 million contract for one low-rate production aircraft in preparation for full-rate production
The fielding of the RQ-21A Blackjack unmanned aerial system achieved full operational capability in 2019.
There is a growing market for rotary wing mini-UAVs in the naval market and products are available in a variety of sizes and configurations. The Austrian company Schiebel is one of the leading manufacturers of small rotary wing UAVs. The Schiebel Camcopter S-100 was developed from 2003 to 2005. With a maximum take-off weight of 200 kilograms (440 lb), its endurance is six hours, which can be extendable to over 10 hours with optional external AVGAS fuel tanks fitted. It has a maximum speed of 220 kilometres per hour (140 mph) and a ceiling of 5,500 metres (18,000 foot). It is powered by a Diamond engine and can carry various payloads, such as electro-optics and infrared sensors.
The launch customer for the S-400 was the UAE Army, which ordered 40 aircraft with an option for 40 more. Total orders have so far reached 200. In 2010 the Chinese Navy purchased 18 of these systems. The Gorizont Air S-100, is the Russian license-built version.
The Airbus Helicopters VSR700 in an unmanned reconnaissance helicopter currently being developed by Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter).
It is based on the Cabri G2 light helicopter, developed and produced by Hélicoptères Guimbal. Airbus was awarded a contract by French Navy in 2017.
The drone is designed to deploy from Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, as well as from frigates. With a maximum take-off weight around 700 kilogram (1,500 lb), it is a larger aircraft than the Austrian Camcopter S-100 that the French Navy has trialled before.
The prototype VSR700 performed its first flight at a drone test centre near Aix-en-Provence, France, on 8 November 2019. It has a cruise speed of 220 km/h (140 mph, 120 knots) and an endurance of up to 10 hours from a launch ship.
The Saab Skeldar is a medium-range VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) developed by the Swedish aerospace company Saab. It can be used for surveillance, intelligence gathering, light cargo transportation, and electronic warfare. The Skeldar V-200 is the designation for the developed version of the system. It can take-off and land on an area of 15x15 meters. Take-off and landings can be made autonomously.
Skeldar V-200 is modular in the sense that payloads can be changed depending on the mission characteristics, for example it can be equipped with laser pointers, range finders, electro-optical & infrared (EO/IR) 3D mapping, a light cargo hook and Signals Intelligence. For naval operations the control station can be integrated into a ships normal operator consoles and combat management systems.In the end of 2015 Saab partnered with UMS and created the company UMS Skeldar. In September 2018, UMS Skeldar V-200B was selected by the German Navy for use on board K130 Braunschweig class corvettes.
The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout is an unmanned autonomous helicopter developed by Northrop Grumman for use by the US military, primarily the US Navy.The Fire Scout is designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, aerial fire support and precision targeting support. The initial RQ-8A version was based on the Schweizer 330, while the enhanced MQ-8B was derived from the Schweizer 333 helicopter. The larger MQ-8C Fire Scout variant is based on the Bell 407 helicopter.
As the US Navy ran a competition to replace its Pioneer UAV with
Bell, Sikorsky, and a collaboration of Teledyne Ryan and Schweizer Aircraft each submitted designs. The Ryan-Schweizer UAV was selected as the winner in the spring of 2000. The RQ-8A Fire Scout, as it was named, was a derivative of the Schweizer three-passenger, turbine powered 330SP helicopter, with a new fuselage, new fuel system, and UAV electronics and sensors.
The Fire Scout was to be fitted with a sensor ball turret that carries electro-optic and infrared cameras, and a laser range finder. It was to be controlled over a data link derived from the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV, operating over a line of sight to a distance of 172 miles (280 km).
The MQ-8B features a four-blade main rotor, in contrast to the larger-diameter three-blade rotor of the RQ-8A, to reduce noise and improve lift capacity and performance. The MQ-8B is 23.95 feet (7.30 metre) long, 6.2 feet (1.9 metre) wide, and 9.71 feet (2.96 metre) tall.
The MQ-8B is fitted with stub wings which serve both an aerodynamic purpose as well as an armament carriage location. Weapons to be carried include Hellfire missiles, Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, and, in particular, pods carrying the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a laser-guided 70 mm (2.75 inch) folding-fin rocket.
In 2017, the MQ-8B will receive a mine-detection sensor for use in littoral waters called the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA). The COBRA is designed to detect naval mines at a safe distance in coastal waters.
The MQ-8Bs size and weight means that it can only really be operated by ships with flat deck.
With the variety of UAVs available to on the open market navies have plenty of choice to meet their requirements. Technological innovation is moving fast with new products ensuring that new products appear with great regularity.