An Israeli-built Heron unmanned aircraft and a manned Spanish Air Force plane recently demonstrated advances in the integration of UAVs in civil airspace. (Israel Aerospace Industries)
TEL AVIV — It was an ordinary spring day on the southeast coast of Spain when an Israeli-built maritime Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicle took off at 11 a.m. from San Javier Air Base in Murcia.
Partly cloudy. A slight breeze. Nothing unusual — apart from the presence of the Spanish Air Force chief of staff, representatives from the European Space Agency, the European Defense Agency and more than a dozen industry executives from seven countries gathered to witness the April 24 flight.
Switching from its line-of-sight data link to the satellite link that would send its sensor data to operators on the ground, the Heron climbed to 20,000 feet, entered civilian airspace, and commenced beyond-line-of-sight radio communication via satellite with Barcelona air traffic control.
An hour or so into the maritime flight, a manned aircraft from the Spanish Air Force Academy approached the Heron, simulating a frontal and 90-degree collision course.
At that point, the ordinary flight assumed extraordinary significance.
Pilots of both aircraft — one from the cockpit, the other miles away on the ground — followed separation instructions from air traffic controllers that diverted them from midair collision.
By the time the Heron touched down, after a six-hour demonstration of traffic control, safety procedures and transmission of radar and video sensors to controllers on the ground, visiting dignitaries had witnessed a milestone: a step toward pilotless operations in the civilian domain.
“For UAVs, the world of civil aviation is the next major frontier. That’s where the world is headed, and we believe we’ll be there within a decade,” said Shaul Shahar, managing director of the Malat Division of Israel Aerospace Industries, producer of the Heron.
Pioneering A Market
Shahar is a retired Israeli colonel who, in 1978, was among the first soldiers trained to operate IAI-produced Scout UAVs for Israeli military intelligence. He said the April 24 test validated not only so-called due-regard technologies — meaning the ability of UAV sensors to regard as well as avoid other aircraft sharing civilian airspace — but provided voluminous data for regulators charged with crafting aviation safety standards, certification requirements and operational procedures.
The IAI executive says many civilian missions performed by piloted aircraft will eventually be supported, if not replaced, by UAVs. Unmanned operations involving police, traffic control, disaster response, firefighting, agriculture, mapping and infrastructure development can potentially open a huge new market worth billions, he said.
“But we can’t move forward [with integrating UAVs into the civilian market] until the civil aviation authorities release standards and procedures. And that’s going to take time,” Shahar said. “Just like IAI 40 years ago pioneered the military market of UAVs, we’re taking a lead in applying breakthroughs in airworthiness, air integration, sense-and-avoid and other technologies to the unmanned civilian domain.”
Funded by ESA and the European Defense Agency, the April 24 flight was the latest in a series of tests conducted under Project DeSIRE, short for Demonstration of Satellites enabling the Insertion of Remotely piloted aircraft systems in Europe.
In addition to the Spanish Air Force and Spanish military and civilian air traffic controllers, the test was supported by an international consortium of German, Dutch, Italian and French companies led by Madrid-based Indra Corp.
The Israeli efforts are well worth watching for American officials, as well. Last year, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate unmanned aircraft into national airspace by 2015. The holdup has been that the FAA says UAVs need to be able to “sense-and-avoid” other aviation, just as a manned aircraft can.
That’s the precise riddle the Israelis are trying to solve.
The Original UAVs
As the world’s first nation to operate UAVs, Israel brings more than 35 years of operational experience to the latest global effort to integrate so-called remotely piloted aircraft systems into the civil domain.
Since the 1978 fielding of the IAI Scout and lessons accrued through its use in combat during the 1982 Lebanon war, UAVs have taken on critical missions, from strategic intelligence, reconnaissance, maritime surveillance and communications relay to target acquisition.
“UAVs have become indispensable in performing a full range of missions in support of our defensive strategy. Not a day goes by without multiple operational deployment of our unmanned assets,” said Tal Inbar, head of the Space and UAV Research Center at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.
The IAI Pioneer, a follow-on to the Israeli Scout, was the first tactical UAV purchased by the U.S. military, well before the now-famed Predator. Designated RQ-2, the Israeli-developed and eventually U.S. co-produced Pioneer debuted operationally in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and flew tens of thousands of hours in contingency operations with the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Army before it was retired in 2007.
By that time, British forces were heavily involved in flight testing their first UAV for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance mission, based on the Hermes 450S by Israel’s Elbit Systems.
Soon to be declared operational as part of the U.K.’s Project Watchkeeper, the Elbit Hermes 450 is now operated by 10 nations, three of whom have deployed the system in support of International Security Assistance Force operations in Afghanistan.
IAI, the exclusive provider of UAVs during Israel’s first two decades of unmanned operations, claims to have clocked more than 1.1 million operational flight hours from 49 users worldwide. Seven nations flew IAI-produced UAVs in support of ISAF operations in Afghanistan, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany and Spain.
Israel's Growing UAV Force
Today, the Israel Air Force operates multiple squadrons of four UAV types.
Elbit’s Hermes 450, with its 30-hour endurance and 150-kilogram payload capacity, is the mainstay of the nation’s unmanned fleet. The aircraft, with its 34-foot parasol-mounted straight wing, performs more than 60 percent of the unmanned missions. Elbit also builds the IAF’s larger Hermes 900.
IAI builds the Heron 1 and the Heron TP. The Heron 1 — with its bulbous dome — is a medium-range UAV that can carry a payload of up to 400 kilograms.
The IAI-built Heron TP — known here as Eitan (Steadfast) — constitutes the strategic backbone of Israel’s unmanned fleet. Built to carry a one-ton specialized payload, the five-ton aircraft, with a wingspan similar to a Boeing 737, can flies automatically at altitudes as high as 45,000 feet for nearly 40 hours.
The IAI Heron TP is considered so advanced that it is one of only two operational systems in the world — the other being the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper — that requires special export scrutiny under Category 1 of the Missile Technology Control Regime. That’s the most sensitive category, rarely licensed for export.
The Civilian Market
IAI and Elbit are now spearheading efforts to certify unmanned systems for civilian operations. Given Israel’s small airspace and the close coordination between military and civil regulatory authorities, aviation experts say Israel is uniquely positioned to lead the way.
While all civil flights in Israel come under the jurisdiction of the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel, the Israeli version of the FAA, the IAF maintains operational oversight over Israeli airspace, with the exceptions of two air corridors that connect Tel Aviv to Jordan and the Red Sea port city of Eilat.
In early 2007, the IAF transferred jurisdiction over nonmilitary UAV operations to CAAI, which certifies aircraft, ground operators and technicians for flight in civilian airspace. That year, the agency issued a civil certification of the Hermes 450.
The company has been working in coordination with Israeli, European and U.S. authorities to ready its air vehicles, associated payloads and ground stations to meet emerging safety standards, said Elad Aharonson, general manager of the firm’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Division.
“When the pilot is not in the cockpit and can’t see with his own eyes, we have to ensure the ability to sense and avoid cooperative, as well as noncooperative aircraft,” Aharonson said.
Sense-and-avoid technology for UAVs is the key to opening the civilian market. It will revolutionize the civilian airspace internationally. So the search for a successful solution has obsessed the industry.
Sensing and avoiding cooperative aircraft is easily managed by off-the-shelf Traffic Collision and Avoidance Systems that allow air vehicles to send signals to other friendlies, as well as to air traffic controllers, Aharonson said.
But identifying and avoiding noncooperative aircraft is a more complex matter.
Elbit has begun early development of UAV-applicable sense-and-avoid systems based on electro-optical and small radar technologies, he said.
“Every UAV that expects to fly in civil airspace will need to deal with cooperative and noncooperative aircraft. It will have to prove that every part of the UAV system, from engine to the software supporting payload integration and mission control is operating according to much more stringent civilian codes,” Aharonson said.
He noted that the company obtained 45 special flight permits from Israeli civil authorities last year to test and operate UAVs. In the first four months of 2013, Elbit obtained seven renewals of previously granted permits along with 18 new permits for additional flight tests.
Shahar, the IAI executive, said his firm is also participating in numerous working groups and committees in Europe and in the U.S. to contribute its experience as international authorities work to codify and harmonize safety standards and operational procedures.
He warned that unlike the military sphere, where UAVs save lives by performing missions that otherwise endanger pilots, civilian regulatory authorities may be less inclined to embrace requisite regulatory changes.
“Pilot lobbies won’t be pushing for this, and we also lack the compelling lifesaving rationale that ushered UAVs into the military arena,” Shahar said. “Much of the impetus for integrating UAVs into the civilian frontier will have to come from industry.”
Amir Rappaport, publisher of Israel Defense and organizer of an early May workshop on integrating autonomous systems into civilian airspace, estimated that nearly half of all flights through Israeli airspace are unmanned.
“Decades of operating UAVs and our experience in managing high volumes of autonomous traffic in such congested airspace make Israel an ideal incubator for the procedures and standards needed to open up international airways to unmanned flight.”
There are challenges: What if the UAV’s data link is lost, for example? Solving the sense-and-avoid puzzle is, in some ways, an international race, and Israel believes it can find the secret first. The test this year in Spain, officials say, show that the solution may come soon.