Governments must rise to the domain awareness challenges of watching over vast territories to manage complex and varied missions, and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have become the go-to solution for many reasons. Today, UAS taskings can range from sovereignty missions, to observing the effects of climate change, to patrolling borders and coastlines, and protecting troops in close combat – and must accomplish all this while flying longer missions, carrying heavier payloads, and reaching higher altitudes.
To accomplish all of this and more, the IAI Heron family of multi-mission UAS has taken yet another technological leap forward. With the TP model, IAI has developed a larger, more capable, powerful and flexible platform that redefines what unmanned aerial systems are now capable of.
“These capabilities demand high reliability and solid designs that address different operational needs and doctrines,” says Avi Bleser, Vice President Marketing and Sales at IAI’s Military Aircraft Group. “The experience we have gained in four decades of operations with more than 50 customers worldwide has shaped the ongoing evolution of the Heron family.”
Optimum availability means deploying from high altitude runways, operating in temperature extremes from +45°C to –40°C, and through extreme weather, strong winds and heavy rain or snow, and across expansive territory. These capabilities make the Heron TP ideal for Canada, particularly in its vast Arctic region.
Most recently, on 16 September 2020, the Heron made history by demonstrating its ability to land and takeoff at a major international airport alongside commercial flights using only satellite technology and its “Long Runner” operating system. This puts the Heron TP in a class by itself.
IAI began developing its Heron family 25 years ago, launching the first variant in 1994. It was a platform weighing 1.18 tons on takeoff, with a remarkable ceiling of 30,000 feet, propelled by an engine that enabled it to fly clandestine intelligence gathering missions without the distinctive ‘sawmill’ noise that other drones made. Highly flexible and adapted to a wide variety of missions, this platform was a revolutionary step forward.
In 1998, the Heron Mk 1 introduced the world’s first multi-mission UAS. This version supported a payload which included an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sighting device, surveillance radar, signals intelligence (SIGINT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) electronics surveillance and a broadband datalink to transmit sensor data to the ground control station.
Optimized to support naval operations, the Maritime Heron was equipped with maritime search radar, Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver for ship identification and tracking, EO/IR and Electronic Support Measures (ESM). Using satellite communications to extend missions beyond the horizon, Maritime Herons often deploy on long-range patrols or in support of naval task forces utilizing shipborne forward mission control elements. The Heron has demonstrated its extensive adaptability and payload variety to suit a variety of mission needs.
The Heron family continues to evolve to meet ever changing and more specific customer needs. The Heron TP is faster, larger, and higher-flying and can be tailored to meet any country’s unique requirements. Powered by a 1,200 hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop engine, manufactured in Longueuil, Quebec, the Heron TP flies at 220 KTAS, more than twice the speed of the Mk 1.
Despite being almost five times heavier, the Heron TP climbs faster – up to a ceiling of 45,000 feet, and can carry over one ton of payload, providing the highest power-to-weight ratio in its class. This powerful platform has been described as both a “beast in the sky” and an engineering beauty.
The TP’s modular building-block architecture makes it readily adaptable to different missions and varying national requirements, and provides security separation between the platform and the payload – enabling use by NATO and Five Eyes (FVEY) nations. To achieve this, it can be built, integrated, qualified and maintained in a host country, thus allowing continuous technological improvements by incorporating advanced C4ISR capabilities as technology progresses. Furthermore, the Heron TP provides ease of operations and maintenance that enables in-country sustainment through its life-cycle support. This modern architecture and enhanced sensor payloads are now used throughout the Heron family.
Integration of other assets with the Heron TP is also part of its design, utilizing open architecture, communications protocols and information sharing to allow operation with the BirdEye 650D Small Tactical UAS and the Vertical Takeoff and Landing Panther family.
Interoperability with NATO and FVEY standards combine with these design features to make the Heron TP among the most adaptable platforms available. Furthermore, as nations such as Germany have discovered, the ability to operate sovereign missions completely ITAR-free, and set and maintain national priorities, is the real strength of the Heron TP platform.
There is also the benefit of being part of the aircraft family. 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 bases. The Long Runner is part of IAI’s centralized Mission Operation & Intelligence Centre (MOIC), supporting the operation of multiple Heron drones of different types, carrying various payloads, and operating at different distances and directions. MOIC provides an efficient integration of intelligence and situational perception, 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 the operator’s efficiency and capacity.
In use throughout the world, the Heron family UAS have accumulated over 1,800,000 operational flight hours and have become the partner of choice for governments that need capability, reliability, and adaptability in a UAS platform. “The utilization has increased threefold over past generations,” notes Bleser. “Besides the robust and scalable system it provides, the exceptional operational experience and numerous technical variations have evolved to meet changing needs and have defined the Heron family as the undisputed leader in the UAS marketplace.” With Canada’s vast territory, three coastlines, and high Arctic region, the Heron TP is an inspired choice to meet any Remotely Piloted Aircraft System needs.