Monday, 18 July 2016

Bringing Together Technologies

Interview with Ronen Nadir, CEO of BlueBird Aero Systems

Ronen Nadir, CEO of BlueBird Aero Systems Ltd.: “[…] the military, law enforcement [forces], and border control [organisations] really need UAVs with better reliability, with longer endurance.”
(Photos: Stefan Nitschke)
BlueBird Aero Systems Ltd. from Israel describes it as a major player in the tactical UAV industry. Established in 2002, it specialises in the design, development, and production of micro, mini, and tactical systems, as well as peripheral equipment for different applications in the military, Homeland Security, and civilian markets. At EUROSATORY 2016 in Villepinte, France, the manufacturer presented its ThunderB, a small tactical UAS with an endurance exceeding 24 hours and an extended range of 150km (81nm), depending on the configuration and type of mission.

Answering the Global Need for UAVs
Speaking to NAVAL FORCES in Villepinte, BlueBird Aero SystemsCEO Ronen Nadir stated that the ThunderB Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) can operate in GPS-denied and COMJAM (Communications Jamming) environments. Much smaller than the ThunderB, the short-range MicroB system can fly for one and a half to two hours. “The new MicroB [creating a new niche in the UAS segment] can fly almost two hours, with the same avionics, with the same payloads and batteries”, he said. “It’s a very aerodynamic and efficient design, combined with a very economic engine and control system. This is why our system can [offer] better capabilities than the systems of our competitors […] With these [operational] parameters, you’ll get a very efficient system.”
In an earlier announcement, Nadir said that the company owns “expanded UAS capabilities outside the traditional tactical Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance [ISR] world” and has added a number of unique features, including ultra-high-resolution photogrammetric [mapping and 3D] payloads; locator units for Blue Force Tracking; HD (High Definition) video transmission; Wireless Mesh Network (WMN) technology; advanced Remote Video Terminal (RVT); and more. He added, “Since its recent upgrade, [the] ThunderB UAS has attracted significant international attention, [and] has already been sold to customers in Europe and Asia, and is undergoing evaluation by a number of additional customers.”

The MicroB system creates a new niche in the UAV segment, offering an endurance of over one hour.
Questioned about the market penetration, Nadir noted that the company’s first military customer was the US Marine Corps (USMC), adding that “the second customer was the US Special Operations Command [USSOCOM].” As to the civilian or commercial market, Nadir suggested to NAVAL FORCES that, “with some kind of shift of attention, in order to meet customer requirements, it is not ready for drones from the regulations point of view.” He continued, “If this [civilian airspace] is flooded with ‘quadcopters’ for short-time, short-range missions, there will be problems. But the military, law enforcement [forces], and border control [organisations] really need UAVs with better reliability, with longer endurance.”
Nadir informed that the company is not looking for a specific market; “but, we are answering the global need for UAVs with three major [design] characteristics: long endurance, long range and reliability.” He told NAVAL FORCES if the user needs proper results from the UAV missions, “you’ll need to use a very expensive payload, [...] say US$150,000. When you put such an expensive, cooled infrared [IR] sensor with stabilisation [onto the aircraft], you want back the very best [results] from a reliable UAV that offers no engine [failures], no loss of communication, no avionics malfunction.” As to future scenarios, this aircraft offers the ability to operate a GPS-denied environment. “That’s why we concentrate on very reliable aircraft”, Nadir commented.
NAVAL FORCES learned that the latter would pose risks, however. Nadir informed that BlueBird Aero Systems has answers to tackle the problems. “We use three different frequencies to [overcome] such [risks] in a jamming environment. You can switch automatically to [another] link, [which] is undetectable and hard to jam by the other side.” He continued, “This switching enables you to fly in a COMJAM environment.”
If GPS is denied or jammed, the company has three solutions on the table. First, there is a GPS anti-jamming technique thanks to special antennae electronics that can eliminate the hostile signals. Second, there is the ability to work with different GPS systems (GLONASS, additional satellite networks and different satellite frequencies). Nadir described the third methodology as an “all-round” solution: “If your GPS is completely jammed by the other side, you’ll use our INS [Inertial Navigation System] in order to calculate your [own] position, so you can estimate your position, and by using a good INS or even a better compass, you can adequately calculate your [actual] position with relatively good results, say a few hundred metres per hour of flight.” He added, “We found a way to automatically update the UAV’s position by fixing on a known landmark position. Using the [UAV’s] video camera, we can look at those landmarks and automatically update [its] position. So, we can fly for 24 hours without using GPS, while maintaining our targeting capability.”
Nadir confirmed that the company’s systems currently on offer are complementary solutions. “You can use them to pinpoint [time-critical] targets, undertake surgical missions [countering snipers] or securing a football event.” For almost two hours, the MicroB can survey a large area at very low cost. “If you need more than that […] and if you need to fly out for about 80km [or for] four hours of endurance, you can use our SpyLite UAV, and you can launch two or three of them for a more extensive mission [as] to enhance border control, to search for immigrants at the borderline, or to [watch at] survivals in the desert”, he explained. A company brochure reads that SpyLite is a combat-proven, electric mini-UAS optimised for providing covert, ‘over-the-hill’ or extended-range intelligence and/or mapping on demand capabilities. BlueBird Aero Systems noted that SpyLite is unique in its ability to operate even in strong winds and on cloudy or rainy days, assuring high operational availability for three to four hours and a communication range of up to 50km. The latter can be extended up to 70km. Nadir informed NAVAL FORCES that shipboard operations are an easy task. “[...] if you need to [operate] a UAV for an even more extended-range mission [for 24 hours or over a range of 160km], you can launch the SpyLite from a ship under severe [weather] conditions.” He added, “After 15, 16 hours, you don’t need to return to the ship; but, you can send it to the [land] base, and [that] can be far away, say 500km. You can use your SATCOM communication in order to transit the UAV from the ship to the land-based station. After nine or 15 hours of flight, it can automatically land there. You don’t need to field all of the recovery equipment on a ship, which is expensive and not always working.”