Most Experience: Colombia, South America's oldest operator of UAVs, began deploying ScanEagles in 2007. (Boeing)
BUENOS AIRES — The use of UAVs in South America is on the rise, driven by demands for border control and protection of natural resources as well as fighting organized crime and insurgency.
Colombia, which started operating UAVs in 2007, is South America’s most experienced and among the region’s most advanced users of the technology.
Its Air Force began deploying the first of a fleet of Boeing Insitu Scan Eagles seven years ago and the fleet has grown to 14 machines plus four specially equipped vehicles for night operations called the Night Eagle.
The UAVs are used in the difficult internal security conditions of the country, including surveillance in support of counterdrug and other operations against organized crime, as well as the fight against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–Ejército del Pueblo (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) guerrillas.
The Colombian Air Force also has started operating two Elbit Hermes 450 UAVs and a single Hermes 900 medium-altitude, long-range (MALE) UAV, which were delivered late in 2013 against a larger order of those machines.
The Army also operates nine RQ-11B light, tactical UAVs from US maker AeroVironment. The National Police are also eyeing a possible acquisition.
Ecuador has become a leading UAV user, having ordered two Heron and four Searcher UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in 2008.
The Navy uses the UAVs in the fight against Colombian traffickers trying to smuggle drugs through Ecuadorean territory on their way to markets in North America and Europe, and to combat the theft and smuggling of Ecuadorean oil, a crime that costs US $500 million per year to the local industry.
Since the UAVs started operations in 2009, oil losses have been halved and continue diminishing, according to a 2013 report from Ecuador’s Ministry of Non-Renewable Natural Resources, encouraging the Navy to seek funding for additional systems.
Early in 2010, the Ecuadorean Army ordered 10 Skylark II light UAVs from Elbit, both for military missions such as tactical reconnaissance and target acquisition, as well as for surveillance and control of the border with Colombia.
Meanwhile, the Ecuadorean Air Force has been studying the potential use of high-altitude unmanned airships fitted with satellite communications, radar and electro-optical observation systems for use in terrain surveillance to produce data similar to that provided by satellites, but at much lower costs. The project, being developed jointly with the National Politecnic University, was unveiled in 2008 by President Rafael Correa and work with prototype airships continued in 2013.
In Brazil, the Federal Police operate 12 Herons ordered in batches from IAI since 2009 and uses them regularly for border surveillance in the northwest against drug traffickers and smugglers.
The machines will also provide surveillance this year as Brazil hosts the Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
In the military sphere, the Navy is studying employing UAVs for maritime patrol from coastal bases, while Insitu’s ScanEagle was recently tested for operation from vessels at sea.
The Marine infantry operates the light UAV Carcará, developed by Rio de Janeiro’s firm Santos Lab, which has been employed operationally in Haiti.
The Brazilian Air Force operates four Hermes 450s ordered in 2011 and 2013, and the eventual procurement of larger machines is likely, considering the size of the national territory and its borders. The service has been collaborating with local firm Avibras in the development of the Falcao MALE UAV, but no committment to procure it has been made.
Local aerospace company Embraer has teamed with Elbit’s local subsidiary, AEL, and Avibrasto to adapt the Hermes 450 to Brazilian requirements and for future development of a range of unmanned aerial systems.
Chile’s Air Force operates three Elbit Hermes 900s ordered in 2011 on behalf of the Armed Forces Joint Staff for surveillance and strategic reconnaissance missions. A follow-on order for three additional machines is expected this year.
The Navy is also interested in the Hermes 900 for maritime surveillance missions, while its Marine infantry employs the Skua, a light tactical UAV developed by local firm RMS. After a brief operation of two Skylark II light UAVs in 2013, the Chilean Army ordered a number of the Spylite light UAVs from Israeli maker Blue Bird Aerosystems, and the service is also collaborating with the University of Concepcion in the development of a longer range UAV named Lascar.
Argentina has several UAV development projects underway run by the military, including the Guardian from the Navy, the Air Force’s PAE 22365 and the Lipan from the Army, but only the last is in experimental operation on a regular basis.
Nostromo, a local private firm that has sold its UAVs to the US Department of Defense, provided three samples of its Yarara UAV for the Air Force’s Unmanned Flight School created in 2011. But the expected order of a number of Hermes 450s needed to tighten control in the porous border area shared with Brazil and Paraguay has not yet materialized.
Peru’s military and police forces fighting the guerrilla group Shining Path in the center-south of the country are using a number of mini-UAVs, including Microfalcon from Innocon and Orbiter from Aeronautics Defense Systems, both Israeli companies. There is a need for larger UAVs and, even when systems available in the international market are under permanent study, the military has decided to give a chance to local industry first, Air Force Col. Carlos Ocio said in 2012. He was leading an interservice group developing these kinds of machines jointly with civilian technological organizations.
Some of the resulting machines have been tested in real operational conditions, but are not being produced in series yet.
Uruguay also has its own indigenous light UAV, the Charrua, which has successfully provided surveillance for peacekeeping operations abroad and locally to fight forest fires.
Bolivia and Paraguay have requirements for UAVs that will translate, sooner or later, into orders for these kinds of machines.
So what’s the future of the UAV market in South America? Expect it to grow, according to Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis with the Teal Group.
A 2013 study of the global UAV market showed that Latin American countries spent US $71.1 million, a figure that will grow to $271.5 million in 2022. Over that decade, Latin American nations will spend around $1.7 billion on unmanned systems.
That market has been “heavily dominated” by Israeli companies, but as the Pentagon enters a period of budget reduction, US firms are starting to turn eyes south, Finnegan said, although that won’t likely lead to displacement of Israeli industry.
“US companies are going to be making a push in the area, but the Israeli companies have a strong lead, and especially in a place like Brazil, they have a strong domestic presence,” Finnegan said.
Brazil will remain the key market in the region. A strong economy, combined with the need to patrol huge tracts of land and marquee events such as the World Cup and Olympics lined up, means Brazil will dominate the area.
Brazil aside, Finnegan highlights Colombia, Chile and Mexico as three nations in Latin America where UAV growth is likely in the coming years, driven in large part by a need for anti-narcotics activity.
South America has just started using unmanned aerial systems, and the needs and requirements for these machines will grow in the future, opening space for both the import of UAVs as well as their domestic development and production. ■
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.