Ship-borne Unmanned Aerial System

NSUAS will be capable of flying either pre-programmed or operator-initiated missions guided by the global positioning system (GPS) and its onboard flight control system

Issue: 4 / 2015By Rear Admiral Sushil Ramsay (Retd)Photo(s): By Insitu

In the month of February the Indian Navy (IN) has floated request for information (RFI) for procurement of 50 Naval Ship-borne Unmanned Aerial System (NSUAS) for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), sea-lanes of communication monitoring and coastal/EEZ surveillance, anti-piracy and anti-terrorism, assistance in search and rescue and assistance in maritime domain awareness, etc. The RFI was issued to all renowned global vendors. This is the first time a RFI has been floated for ship borne NSUAS.

The IN currently operates two squadrons of Israeli-origin Heron and Searcher Mk-II UAVs, which are now in Kochi and Porbandar. NSUAS will be capable of flying either pre-programmed or operator-initiated missions guided by the global positioning system (GPS) and its onboard flight control system. It is primarily intended for operations from ships, the systems will also have a capacity to be operated from ashore.

While IN has not included in the RFI type of NSUAS, whether rotary or fixed wing, type of launch/recovery — it mentioned that the NSUAS should be capable of operating from IN warships of size of at least 50 m upwards, with or without helicopter decks and be capable of day/night operations. Over the years IN has been on the lookout for different UAS, including ship-borne rotary-wing vehicles, shore-based Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE)/High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) vehicles and conventional shore-based vehicles to augment its fleet of IAI Herons and Searcher Mk II.

The RFI stipulated that NSUAS should be an autonomous UAS with small footprint that provides ISR capability in the maritime domain. Further, “The NSUAS should be capable of flying either pre-programmed or operator initiated missions guided by the GPS and its onboard flight control system. The NSUAS is primarily intended for operations from ship but should also be capable of operating from ashore. The operating speed, range and endurance of NSUAS under Indian Reference Atmosphere (IRA) in various roles envisaged from ship and shore should be such that it enables accomplishment of above mentioned tasks.” The requirements stipulated in the RFI are quite generic for the vendors to provide data on solutions that fit the broad specifications. The vendors are expected to define space required for UAS operations, launch and recovery, time and manpower required for the launch and recovery procedures, requirement of any special tools, kit or handling equipment for launch and recovery, details and extent of permanent modifications/temporary equipment on deck necessary, requirements for special mechanisms, tools, equipment required for handling the NSUAS on deck and for stowage.

In consonance with its continuing thrust towards indigenisation and pursuance of ‘Make in India’ drive, RFI stipulates, “Critical technologies required and comment on its ability to absorb the UAS manufacturing technology at the levels of sub-vendor/supply chain elements in India through transfer of technology from original equipment manufacturer and its partners.” The main thrust of the RFI is to obtain discernible details of the system, with compatible and robust sensors and communication capabilities, which can be easily launched and recovered from any platform at sea.

NSUAS Developments Elsewhere

IN’s RFI has been floated at a time when the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is in the process of progressing its Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) programme which envisions using smaller ships as mobile launch and recovery sites for MALE UAVs. According to DARPA, “TERN would enable on-demand, ship-based UAS operations without extensive, time-consuming and irreversible ship modifications. It would provide small ships with a ‘mission truck’ that could transport ISR and strike payloads to very long distances from the host vessel. The solution would support field-interchangeable mission packages for both overland and maritime missions. It would operate from multiple ship types and in elevated sea states. DARPA and ONR envision TERN as improving aviation capabilities from smaller ships substantially beyond the current state-of-the-art. The programme has three planned phases. The first two phases focus on preliminary design and risk reduction for the TERN system. In phase three, a performer would be selected to build a full-scale demonstrator TERN system for ground-based testing, culminating in an at-sea demonstration of launch and recovery.”

The other compatible system developed is RQ-21A Blackjack. It is a small tactical unmanned aircraft system (STUAS) designed and developed by Insitu, a Boeing company, to meet the requirements of the US Navy and the US Marine Corps (USMC). The Blackjack can be deployed in persistent maritime and land-based tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, data collection, target acquisition and dissemination missions. The multi-intelligence aircraft system constitutes five air vehicles with multi-mission payloads, two ground control stations and ancillary equipment. The USMC has a requirement for 32 RQ-21A unmanned systems, while the US Navy requires 25 systems to be used for shipboard, special warfare and expeditionary operations.

Produced by the Austrian company Schiebel, it was developed from 2003 to 2005. With a maximum take-off weight of 200 kg (440 lb), its endurance is six hours. It has a maximum speed of 220 km per hour (140 mph) and a ceiling of 5,500 m (18,000 feet). It is powered by a 55 horsepower (41 kW) Diamond engine and can carry various payloads, such as electro-optics and infrared sensors. On March 12, 2012, Schiebel announced that it successfully tested a company-developed heavy-fuel engine interchangeable with the standard Diamond engine. This heavy-fuel engine allows for the use of JP-5, Jet A-1 or JP-8 jet fuels. These fuels, which are standard on marine vessels, are safer to store and handle than gasoline.

On February 7, 2013, Schiebel flight tested a Thales Group I-Master surveillance radar system on the Camcopter at its Wiener Neustadt, Austria facility. I-Master system, weighing 30 kg (66 lb), provides ground moving target indication and synthetic aperture radar operations. The Camcopter underwent sea trials on the IN’s INS Sujata (P56) during October 2007. Flight testing occurred aboard a Pakistan Navy Type 21 frigate in the Arabian Sea on March 16, 2008, with further naval testing on April 14, 2008, on the Spanish Guardia Civil vessel Rio Miño off Gran Canaria.

The German Navy conducted testing during three weeks in August and September 2008 on the Braunschweig class corvettes Braunschweig and Magdeburg, respectively. More than 130 take-offs were conducted, and the UAV maintained unaided on-deck stability in greater than 15° flight deck roll conditions.

The French Navy performed test flights during September and October 2008, with a Camcopter spending four days on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean and a further three days on the frigate Montcalm (D642).

In November 2011 the Camcopter demonstrated flights from the French Gowind class corvette L’Adroit. At the same time, the Gorizont (Horizon) Air S-100, a Russian licence-built version of the UAV was successfully tested aboard the Coast Guard patrol cutter Rubin.

In 2010 the Chinese Navy purchased 18 of these systems. Two years later, in May 2012, an unmanned UAV believed to be a Camcopter S-100 was photographed operating from the fantail of a Chinese Type 054A frigate by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

In April 2012, the Camcopter became the first unmanned helicopter to fly from an Italian Navy vessel when it was flight tested from the MM Bersagliere (F-584). In February 2014, the Italian Navy chose the S-100 as its primary unmanned aerial system for shipboard operations, where it will be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The Royal Australian Navy has reportedly tested a Schiebel helicopter drone in June 2013.