Global Market Growing for Miniature Drones

The combat performance of the U.S. military’s small unmanned aircraft systems during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has inspired international market interest in the technologies, Lockheed officials said.

There continues to be strong interest from militaries around the world in small, hand-launched, high-endurance UAS with electro-optical/infrared imaging technology, Jay McConville, Lockheed’s director of business development for UAS told reporters in January.

“There is still a robust military market for small UAS. We’re getting a lot of requests for demonstrations all the time. Everyone around the world saw how valuable these assets were in our latest conflicts. Everybody wants them,” he said.

For example, the U.S. Army had great success identifying insurgents, protecting convoys and seeing over small mountains in Iraq and Afghanistan using the small, hand-launched UAS called the RQ-11B Raven UAS with a digital data link.

The less-than five pound Raven can reach ranges up to 10 kilometers and stay aloft for up to 80-hours, according to information from its manufacturer, Aeronvironment. The Raven, which has a wingspan of 4.5 feet, can reach altitudes up to 500 feet.

The U.S. military also operates other Aeronvironment small UAS such as the RQ-20A PUMA AE and the WASP Micro Air Vehicle.

Small UAS proved tactically significant in recent ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as they allowed small units on-the-move to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, information. In many instances they helped gather combat-relevant and even life-saving intelligence by viewing insurgent activity, for example, in the other side of a ridge or hiding alongside known convoy routes. These small UAS are able to beam back video images of nearby activity in real-time, helping ground combat units make informed decisions.

As a result, Lockheed is developing and offering a series of small hand-launched UAS for global customers interested in both civil and military applications of the technology. In fact, the U.S. Army currently has a small UAS development contract with Lockheed, company officials said.

One of Lockheed’s UAS’ is called Indago, a five-pound, vertical take-off-and-landing small aircraft able to surveil areas for up to 55 minutes at altitudes up to 11,000 feet.  Indago, which has EO/IR and digital data link technology, recently helped the Australian government fight wildfires, according to a Lockheed statement.

Lockheed also offers a small UAS called Vector Hawk, a 1.8 kg aircraft able to stay aloft for 90 minutes at heights up to 17,000 feet. The very small Vector Hawk is engineered for high speed maneuvers and can reach 70 knots, Lockheed officials said.

“You can take the same aircraft body (Vector Hawk) and use it in multiple configurations such as tilt rotor or fixed wing flight,” McConville added.

Vector Hawk is currently being tested by Lockheed and company officials say multiple customers around the globe are showing interest in acquiring the UAS.

The British military currently uses yet another Lockheed-built small UAS, the Desert Hawk III – a 3.6 kg hand-launched UAS able to travel for 90 minutes out to ranges of 15 kilometers.

British forces used Desert Hawk extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lockheed officials said.

“The Desert Hawk has been our workhorse for a long time. It broke 30,000 hours of use by the UK Ministry of Defense. This aircraft has done a lot of great work for soldiers deployed. I’ve seen the Desert Hawk’s wings come back with tank tracks over them,” McConville explained.

Desert Hawk III, which is engineered to be very quiet, uses EO/IR technology with a laser illuminator, he said.

Another quiet, small UAS built by Lockheed is called Stalker, a slightly larger 8 kg aircraft with a wingspan of 2.9 meters and the ability to reach altitudes of 15,000 feet.

“Stalker is another leap forward in terms of endurance with four hours of battery power. We can bring in solid oxide fuel technology and reach eight hours of endurance on a small hand-launched UAV. That is really significant,” McConville said.

– Kris Osborn can be reached at