Australia buys new defence drones and smart video technology

By on 27 July, 2017

After a period of trials, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has officially signed the agreement to purchase a fleet of compact surveillance remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS, or drones).

The deal will see ADF supplied with a number of portable RPAS built by AeroVironment, a United States manufacturer specialising in unmanned platforms for defence and security. Australian distributor of unmanned systems hardware and software, XTEK, is the primary contractor under the agreement, and will be responsible for delivering a range of products worth approximately AU$42 million, including the AeroVironment Wasp AE.

Weighing 1.3kg and having a wingspan of 102cm, the Wasp AE is a fixed-wing RPAS portable enough to be carried by individual servicemen and women and able to easily supply imagery and encrypted video. The Wasp is launched by hand, able to fly for 50 minutes and capable of landing on the ground or in fresh or salt water, making it ideal for infantry, littoral and maritime operations.

For the past two years, ADF has been trialling the AeroVironment WASP AE. The newly signed contract will see the delivery of a number of these models that have been specifically customised for ADF applications.

The Wasp AE is small, portable, reliable, and rugged RPAS designed for front-line day/night reconnaissance and surveillance.

In addition to the Wasp AE, the contract will also see XTEK deliver two Australian-developed software packages. These includes the Kestrel software suite from Sentient Vision Systems, which detects moving targets in full motion video from manned aircraft, helicopters or UAVs. The other is Tacex, a software platform from General Dynamics Mediaware used for motion imagery exploitation. Both providers of these platforms are Australian based. To develop Wasp AE, AeroVironment has been working closely with XTEK, General Dynamics Mediaware and Sentient Vision.

XTEK this week also signed an agreement that subcontracts AeroVironment to provide local maintenance, training and field support alongside XTEK. Together, both XTEK and AeroVironment will provide these services to meet the immediate needs of ADF.

Mr Philippe Odouard, Managing Director of XTEK highlighted the significance of the signing: “This is a very important day for the Australian Defence as XTEK and AeroVironment will deliver the WASP AE SUAS capability to all the relevant units in the Army,” he said.

“It also offers a number of Australian designed and supplied items bringing a higher level of information gathering to the warfighter. ”

Australian Army soldier Corporal Doug Coombs from 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (Queensland Mounted Infantry) prepares to launch a Wasp AE small unmanned aircraft vehicle at Gallipoli Barracks, Brisbane, on 5 October 2016.

The use of RPAS in defence is expected to enable smarter operations in the field. An ADF spokesperson said to ITnews that “traditionally, the Army would request the support of larger aerial surveillance systems, or, employ less technical methods of surveillance and reconnaissance to support battlefield awareness requirements.”

“The ability to provide [RPAS like the Wasp] to combat units provides tactical commanders a more responsive information collection asset.

“It also allows operators to remain at a safe distance from observed target areas, enhancing force protection in an increasingly lethal battle space.”

David Sharpin, the vice-president of AeroVironment’s Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), said that the contract offers ADF the “best UAS capabilities available in the world today.”

“This contract to supply Wasp AE small UAV systems to support the Australian Defence Force is the result of 10 years of work with XTEK and the Commonwealth, including thorough operational testing, bringing small UAS compatible with the US operations to Australia, and adding capabilities from Australian companies,” he said.

“This collaboration reflects the unwavering commitment of all four companies and the ADF to support and protect the dedicated members of the Australian armed forces with the best UAS capabilities available in the world today – to help them proceed with certainty and ensure successful missions.”

One thing that has not been disclosed in any of the media releases is the quantity of RPAS that will be supplied, however one may assume that this will remain a defence secret, and perhaps for good reason.

Please note: this article has been modified on 27 July 2017, since further details of the contract have been provided.   

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