Denel Dynamics’ latest unmanned air vehicle (UAV), the Seeker 400, is due to make its maiden flight in the first quarter of next year. This will be followed by flight tests leading to production for an unspecified client that “operated the Seeker I tactical UAV in the early 1990s.”
Two other countries which currently operate the Seeker II are also interested in the Seeker 400 because the new aircraft can be controlled by simply using their existing Seeker II control stations, the state arsenal says in a statement. “The decision by Denel to invest in this new product was mainly based on the global requirements for this capability. Based on the business case, Denel decided to fund the development from its balance sheet,” says Tsepo Monaheng, executive for Denel UAVS.
Although the USA and Israel dominate the global market, there is scope for South Africa to use local skills to create market-leading UAVs to a broad spectrum of countries – from developing to developed. This market is estimated at US $14 billion per annum, the company says in a statement. The South African UAV industry aims to capture in excess of 20% of this end of the market, the media release adds.
Simphiwe Hamilton, chairman of the South African UAV forum and executive director of the SA Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries Association in September 2009 said the South African unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry was worth an estimated R400 million and is chasing annual business worth the same amount. The forum brings together SA UAV producers Denel Dynamics and ATE as well as research-and-development centres based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and experts from the departments of Science and Technology as well as Trade and Industry. “It was estimated in 2005 that 200 full-time people employed in the wider South African industry would create a sustainable business turnover of around R200 million per year,” Hamilton said.
The aircraft was displayed in mock-up form at the Africa Aerospace and Defence Show (AAD) 2010, in Cape Town in September last year. Though it utilises the Seeker II architectural design, Denel insists the Seeker 400 is a totally new aircraft. The Seeker 400 long-endurance tactical UAV (TUAV) is much larger and much more capable than the Seeker II and provides a variety of operational options, the company explains. It is deployable in most conditions, including taking off from an unprepared piece of land.
Monaheng describes the Seeker 400 as a “typical entry-level” long-endurance TUAV. It can stay in the air for 16 hours and can simultaneously operate two payloads. It currently has a maximum expected range of 250 km, the same as the Seeker II, because it will use only line-of-sight communications. This can be upgraded to satellite communications, which would allow it to operate at much greater ranges. With the use of the existing tactical ground station (TGS), the range may be extended to 750km.
The Seeker 400 flight test programme will run for most of 2012, and production should start by the end of the year.
Denel Dynamics plans, in due course, to add weapons to the Seeker 400, turning the aircraft into an armed reconnaissance platform. The prototype was recently displayed at the company’s 2011 ‘Show and Tell’ briefing in Centurion with a Mokopa precision-guided missile (PGM, also a Denel Dynamics product) under each wing. Last year, at AAD2010, Denel Dynamics exhibited a mock-up of the Impi, a 25kg hybrid of the business’ existing Mokopa and Ingwe PGM. Denel Dynamics’ Garsen Naidu said at the show the new missile concept “brings all our experience together”. The missile combines the Mokopa’s seeker and laser guidance units with the Ingwe’s multipurpose warhead and the Umkhonto short-range surface-to-air air defence missile’s datalink. Like the Mokopa, the weapon has a 10km range. Impi is currently in its design phase and is a small, low-cost system designed specifically for operation on lightweight armed reconnaissance platforms, Naidu added. A number of countries have already expressed interest in an armed version of the UAV, Denel adds.
The Seeker 400 was originally conceived as an upgrade of the Seeker II but, as the project developed, the company realized that a totally new and larger aircraft would do better in the market. The retention of the name ‘Seeker’ also takes advantage of the Seeker II’s established brand.
The Seeker 400 programme schedule is on track. The medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV project, the Bateleur, has not been abandoned but is currently on hold to allow for a focused development of the Seeker 400.
Globally, UAVS are becoming ever more important and more widely used. Although costs are coming down, UAVs are not necessarily cheaper or easier to operate than crewed aircraft – some top-of- the-range UAVs are very expensive, Denel says. But the fact that they have no human on board means they can be sent into high-risk environments and they can be kept aloft much longer than a conventional aircraft.
The availability of capable and affordable South African UAVs has obvious benefits for national security as well as crime fighting, disaster management, election monitoring and search-and-rescue, Denel says. UAVs are also utilised in the agricultural, mining, health and environmental sectors. Within the next five years UAVs will be used by a diversity of industries– from policing poachers on land and coastlines or carrying test specimens from remote clinics to laboratories for analysis, to keeping an eye on livestock on farms. “This wide range of applications will open up lucrative parallel markets for international UAV players,” Denel adds.
Foreign experience in combat zones shows that the key service that UAVs provide to ground force commanders is live video coverage. This provides them with real time surveillance, intelligence and target acquisition as well as much better situational awareness. The French Army has reported that, in Afghanistan, UAVs have saved the lives of its soldiers and some 80% of its UAV missions are to protect its troops. Indeed, it is now known that one of the operators of the Seeker II has deployed these UAVs under UN command in a foreign country.