LONDON — In recent decades, manufacturers have pushed for larger and heavier unmanned aerial systems.
But the war in Ukraine is pushing these drone makers to focus new attention on arming smaller variants.
More than 30 countries now operate medium-altitude, long-endurance, or MALE, drones, primarily acquired in the last decade. Drone Wars UK, a non-governmental British organization that tracks drone proliferation, has identified 14 other nations likely to purchase these systems in the near future.
These drones typically excel in performing counterinsurgency missions, which was a major focus. But drone makers now are thinking about a wider range of categories of drones capable of striking targets.
“The [Ukraine] war has made it clear that a kinetic capability in Group 2 and 3 UAS is relevant and we have put more rigor behind an existing research and development in this focus area,” Jill Vacek, an Insitu representative, told Defense News.
Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, announced plans on Sept. 5 to arm its Integrator drone, which under the classification employed by the U.S. Department of Defense falls in Group 3. These systems typically weigh below 1,320 pounds (599 kg) and can fly at a maximum speed under 250 knots, whereas Group 2 UAS will weigh between 21-55 pounds.
Currently the company is not considering integrating the Integrator with anything beyond precision munitions. It can carry up to 35 pounds of payload and has recently completed a 25.5-hour sortie equipped for a multi-payload mission.
The Insitu representative noted that while their drones have successfully operated in counterinsurgency missions, the conflict in Ukraine and prospects in the Pacific have called attention to the challenges of operating more exquisite MALE systems against near-peers.
“Integrator delivers range and endurance previously available only with larger, more expensive and more vulnerable MALE UAV platforms. It can be operated by a fraction of the operators and maintainers required for traditional Group 5 UAS [weighing above 1,320 pounds], and with no runway necessary,” Vacek added.
Another company working on arming smaller systems is One Way Aerospace. Relatively new to this space, the company has focused on producing low-cost kamikaze drones in Ukraine. In May, it demonstrated the AQ-400 and AQV-150 Scalpel Heavy platforms to the Ukrainian MoD and an undisclosed NATO country.
James Earl, one of the company’s founders, said slow and unprotected MALE drones are not necessarily suitable assets when a force is not able to guarantee air superiority or air supremacy.
He added that the industry is “realizing that the need for persistent ‘call for fires’ capability, similar to what the Predator and similar platforms provided in Afghanistan and Iraq, is no longer applicable in the context of Ukraine.”
That is not to say requirements for MALE systems will cease, however, as they also provide an array of capabilities hard to reproduce with less expensive, attritable drones.
One Way Aerospace’s mothership system, combining both the AQ-400 and AQV120 drones, is expected to be available toward the end of the year $80,000. Beyond Ukraine, Earl adds that the Indo-Pacific and Africa are both high priorities for them at this stage.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.