Unmanned Air Forces: Countries Big and Small Set out to Make Their Own Pilotless Aircraft

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- A stroll down the aisles of the IDEX defense exhibition here confirmed that the unmanned aerial vehicle market is growing. Turkey, Switzerland, Pakistan, South Africa, Jordan, Italy and Austria were just a handful of the countries that were selling the technology and actively trying to market it to foreign or domestic customers.

In a booth outside the main hall, students from Abu Dhabi University displayed a UAV they built as a classroom project.

Analysts say the U.S. military's success using the technology in recent years is driving more countries to either obtain or build their own aerial drones. U.S. and Israeli manufacturers still have the most advanced systems, but there is plenty of emerging competition out there.

"Almost everybody and his brother is making UAVs. Whether or not they're going to sell them to anybody is the question," said unmanned vehicles analyst Larry Dickerson of Forecast International.

The U.S. military's interest in the technology dates back to at least the 1970s, but hobbyists have been operating radio controlled airplanes long before that. Now, it's just a matter of attaching a small, lightweight digital video camera to one of these easily obtained toys. Of course, police and militaries want better systems than those invented in hobbyists' garages.

Burt van Staade, business development manager for UAV systems at South Africa's Denel Dynamics, provided a case study of how the technology is proliferating and steadily improving.

The South African military bought an unmanned system from a foreign manufacturer about 25 years ago, he said. He declined to name the country, although analysts told National Defense it came from Israel.

The purpose of the purchase was to see how it worked, so the military could embark on its own program. The result was the Seeker UAV Surveillance system. Next came the Seeker II, a digital system with a 250 kilometer range, 10 hours of endurance, plus day and night reconnaissance ability from altitudes of up to 18,000 feet.

Denel Dynamics then began marketing the Seeker II to overseas customers. It has sold seven systems to four different nations, although not to the South African military, Van Staade said.

Each system has four aircraft, but some have crashed due to operator errors, so Denel has sold some replacement UAVs as well. He declined to reveal the customers or the price tag for the system.

Despite the failure to sell the Seeker II to the South African military, the company has continued with development of a third-generation aircraft, the Seeker 400, Van Staade said. It will be able to carry two payloads instead of one, fly for 16 hours and will have a 10-meter wing span--three meters longer than its predecessor.

"We are fight on top compared to other manufacturers as far as the reliability of the system ... On the Seeker 400, we can only do better," he said. Testing continues this year on the new version.

There will be more potential customers for UAV manufacturers such as Denel during the coming decade, according to market analysts.

The Teal Group in a February report predicted that the worldwide market for unmanned aircraft will total more than $62 billion during the next 10 years.

The U.S military is driving the demand and serving as a catalyst. Despite the myriad international companies vying for this business, the United States will invest 72 percent of the worldwide spending on research, development, training and evaluation for the systems. It will also account for 61 percent of the procurement, the report said.

The group's World Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems, Market Profile and Forecast 2009, said the demand for battlefield intelligence is key to this growth. The emergence of hunt-and-kill drones--ones that are armed with missiles--may also fuel sales. …