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IAI's Heron family in the spotlight (sponsored)
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Based on the experience with the first generation of tactical UAS customers wanted UAS that could do more – fly longer missions, carry heavier payloads, endure longer missions, and soar higher. Realizing that addressing all those demands by mere upgrading of tactical platforms was not possible, IAI designers turned to a larger, more capable platform that would take UAS capabilities to the new level. That’s how the Heron family was conceived.
By 1994 the first Heron variant marked the step change for the entire family – a platform weighing 1.18 ton on takeoff, that could climb to 30,000 ft., its propulsion consist of an aviation engine that enabled the drone to fly clandestine intelligence gathering missions without the distinctive ‘sawmill’ noise delivered by other drones.
The Heron platform proved highly flexible and was adapted to different missions through the introduction of the world’s first multi-mission UAS. “These capabilities demand high reliability and solid design that address the different operational needs and doctrines,” Says Avi Bleser, Vice President Marketing and sales at IAI’s Military Aircraft Group. “The experience we gained in four decades of operations with more than 50 customers worldwide has shaped the ongoing evolution of the Heron family,” Bleser added. Maintaining mission availability, also means deploying from runways at an altitude of 11,000 ft., from air bases in the Himalaya and Andes. High mission reliability and readiness are defined by temperature extremes from +45 to -40 degrees Celsius, flying under pouring monsoon rains and through high winds.
By 1998, when Heron Mk 1 introduced the world’s first UAS it carried 470 kg of fuel and payload, comprised of EO/IR, radar, SIGINT and COMINT sensors and a broadband datalink transmitting to the ground station the information that these sensors collect.
Another variant optimized to support naval operation is the Maritime Heron, equipped with maritime search radar, AIS, EO/IR payload and Electronic Support Measures (ESM). Leveraging satellite communications to extend missions beyond the horizon Maritime Herons often deploy on long-range patrols or in support of naval task forces, utilizing forward mission control elements carried on board the naval vessels.
Since the introduction of the first Heron family continued to evolve to meet customer needs, introducing the faster, larger, and higher-flying Heron TP. Powered by a turboprop engine Heron TP flies at more than twice the speed than the Heron. Although it is almost five-times heavier, Heron TP climbs faster up to a ceiling of 45,000 feet and carries over one ton of payloads.
Heron TP also introduced a modular architecture building blocks that quickly tailors the platform for different missions. This architecture enables customers to continuously upgrade platforms by inserting advanced capabilities as technology progress. This modern architecture and enhanced sensor payloads are now used throughout the family.
Above: IAI Heron Mk II. (Image: IAI)
This modular and scalable architecture also introduced two new family members – Heron MK II and the smallest platforms in the family - the T-Heron. While Heron MK II provides the next generation platform succeeding the Mk I and Maritime Heron, T-Heron fulfills the role of tactical UAS previously performed by IAI’s Searcher MKII. T-Heron performs missions at a short and medium range, supporting ground operations. Both carry multiple payloads, and operate the entire range of payloads operated by other Heron family, including EO/IR, radar and electronic surveillance, and are limited only by the platform’s load and space availability.
Utilizing open architecture, communications protocols and information sharing enables the integration of other assets with the Heron. These include BirdEye 650D Small Tactical UAS and the VTOL Panther family.
Above: IAI's Heron UAS with SATCOM, EO, maritime radar, COMINT and ELINT payloads. (Image: IAI)
With SATCOM communications integrated, IAI Herons can now employ ‘Long Runner’ to operate remotely in the air and on the ground, requiring minimal ground support at remote operating base. The long runner is part of IAI’s centralized Mission Operation & Intelligence Center (MOIC), supporting the operation of multiple Heron drones of different types, carrying various payloads, at operating at different distances and directions. MOIC provides an efficient integration of intelligence and situational picture, by flexibly allocating assets to support evolving situations and operational needs. The intelligence processing systems associated with the Heron family are also designed with powerful, semi-automatic target location, classification and designation workflow, optimizing operator’s efficiency and capacity.
Besides the centralized operation, Heron UAS are designed to closely support users at the tactical and operational level employing platform and mission autonomy to handle active payload control by the user, while the platform flies autonomously or under remote control.
In use by 22 customers throughout the world, among them India, Israel, Germany, South Korea, and Brazil, Heron family UAS have accumulated over 500,000 operational flight hours. “The utilization has increased threefold over past generations,” Bleser concludes. “Besides the robust and scalable system it provides, the exceptional operational experience and numerous technical variations that evolved to meet the needs of the Heron Community define the Heron family as the leader in UAS.”
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