The Future of UAVs
Mar 15, 2010

Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) were conceived almost as long ago as manned aircraft. Perhaps the first tangible example was the Kettering Bug that was delivered to the US Army in 1918 and included Orville Wright as an aeronautical consultant on the project. However, the real potential of UAVs in a military context was not fully appreciated until 1982 when Israel used UAVs to achieve unprecedented military success against Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries in the Bekaa Valley. This decisive victory generated enormous interest in military UAVs, and in the years that followed, the maturing of various enabling technologies significantly narrowed the gap between concept and reality. The UAV has become an icon of the Revolution in Military Affairs, a staple of military transformation, and a key tool in the Global War on Terrorism.

Today, we stand on the threshold of a new era that is poised to expand the roles and employment of UAVs to include a host of domestic tasks within both the public and private sectors. MDA has positioned itself to play a key leadership role in advancing that expansion both in Canada and internationally.
MDA’s entry into the UAV sector was a natural fit that complemented its strengths in the fields of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Information Management and Remote Sensing. MDA instantly recognized the synergies that could be achieved from integrating UAVs into a network of space-based, airborne and ground-based sensor platforms to enable a myriad of ISR applications in support of military, government and commercial imperatives. With a vision to lead the Canadian UAV sector forward, MDA partnered with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in 2004.  MDA invested in a UAV operation at CFB Suffield, Alberta based on the IAI Heron. The Heron, classed as a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) platform, has an all-up weight of 1,150 kg, a wingspan of 16.6 m and the capability to carry up to 250 kg of sensor payload including an Electro-Optic/Infrared (EO/IR) turret, various Electronic Warfare (EW) sensors and several types of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). The Heron is capable of operating at altitudes up to 30,000 ft and has a mission endurance in excess of 24 hrs.
In commencing operations in Suffield, MDA established itself as a Canadian UAV pioneer, and of the premier UAV operator in Canada. In 2007 MDA was issued the first Special Flight Operations Certificate for a MALE class UAV ever granted by Transport Canada. MDA was subsequently invited to participate in several Transport Canada working groups engaged in contributing to the development of the still nascent Canadian UAV regulatory environment. MDA UAV operations engendered considerable interest from both public and private sector organizations. In spring 2008, MDA participated in a Search and Rescue demonstration that integrated the Heron UAV, a manned aircraft from the Civil Air Search And Rescue Association (CASARA), and ground search teams. This highly successful demonstration clearly highlighted the viability and efficacy of integrating UAVs into domestic roles. It provided a window into a future when UAVs can routinely be expected to perform tasks like sovereignty and security patrols, environmental monitoring, natural resource and wildlife management, pipeline inspection, and forest fire management.

MDA went on to win the contract for Project Noctua, a UAV service to support Canadian Forces (CF) in Afghanistan. MDA provides the UAV systems, maintenance, training and logistics support while the CF provides the Air Vehicle Operators, Payload Operators and Intelligence Analysts.
MDA went from contract award in August 2008 to first flight in Afghanistan in January 2009, a remarkable achievement in only five months. Shortly thereafter, MDA reached another significant milestone when its maintenance organization was fully accredited by the CF Technical Airworthiness Authority. Today MDA is exceeding expectations in Afghanistan where the Heron has been credited with saving Canadian and allied lives. MDA also expanded the scope and tempo of operations in Suffield which now serves as a year-round training base. Much has already been learned about operating UAVs in the demanding conditions posed by the Canadian winter. In addition, the system has proven its flexibility by being deployed twice within Canada and once to the US to conduct collective training with land forces and other air assets.
MDA’s success in Project Noctua did not go un-noticed, and by August 2009, the company was under contract to provide a similar UAV service capability to support the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) in Afghanistan. MDA again achieved all of the necessary Australian airworthiness approvals and rapidly expanded their established capabilities allowing them to meet the ADF’s requirement to commence flight operations in theatre in December 2009, a mere four months after contract award.
While MDA has accomplished a great deal in a short time, the company is not standing still. MDA continues to further its UAV capabilities with additional platforms and complementary technologies, including satellite communications solutions to extend operating ranges and enable remote split operations. In addition, MDA remains fully engaged in addressing the regulatory and technical challenges that limit the access of UAVs to our skies. Overcoming these challenges would allow UAVs to demonstrate their ability to perform many roles now limited to manned aircraft but at lower costs and with less risk to aircrew. As the world stands on the threshold of the future of aviation, MDA is stepping forward, firmly committed to accelerating the pace of change and moving us closer to realizing the true potential of UAVs.

© FrontLine Defence 2010