Arms manufacturers want to market their long-range drones for interior ministries or agriculture, but to do so they must fly over populated areas. Market leaders are working feverishly to obtain the necessary permits.
For the first time, the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority has issued a permanent permit to fly a drone in civil airspace. The type certificate was granted to the defence company Elbit for its “Hermes Starliner”, as the company announced in a press release yesterday. According to a spokesperson, Elbit spent six years working on the certification, a process that involved “thousands of man hours, dozens of audits, laboratory tests, ground tests, intensive flight tests and thousands of documents”.
Until now, civilian and military flights of such large drones in Israel were restricted to reserved airspace. According to the aviation authority, the certification that has now taken place meets the applicable NATO standards for the integration of heavyweight drones. Accordingly, the drones used by the military can use civilian airspace – for training, for example – and ascend over populated areas.
“Border security and anti-terror operations”
The “Starliner” has a wingspan of 17 metres and a weight of 1.6 tonnes and can stay in the air for up to 36 hours, according to the manufacturer. It is a further development of the “Hermes 900”, which has been in service with the Israeli Air Force for almost 20 years. It can be armed with missiles and is considered “combat-proven” after missions in Gaza. It can carry around 450 kilograms of weapons or surveillance sensors.
To fly in civilian airspace, large drones must have a de-icing system, a system for automatic take-off and landing in poor visibility, and a collision detection and avoidance system. The Elbit drones use radar, among other things, to do this. According to Swiss media reports, its development certification was responsible for the long delay in the certification that has now taken place.
According to Elbit, the “Starliner” also complies with the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for flight in civil airspace. The company cites “border security and anti-terror operations”, securing major events, “environmental inspection missions, as well as precision agriculture work” as possible uses. In addition, the “Starliner” could carry out search and rescue missions at sea. A year ago, Elbit had presented a configuration for dropping life rafts for this purpose.
Other countries could now also allow domestic drone missions. While the “Hermes 900” has been ordered in various versions by a dozen other countries, according to the manufacturer, the “Starliner” flies for the Canadian Ministry of Transport and the Swiss Army.
However, the press release conceals that the procurement by the Ministry of Defence in Switzerland has been delayed for three years due to a crash, among other things. On 5 August 2020, a “Hermes 900” on a test flight in Israel during a planned high-speed manoeuvre broke up in the air and subsequently crashed on the ground.
The European Maritime Safety Agency has also already recorded a total loss of a “Hermes 900” during take-off from an airfield in Crete. The drone got into trouble and made an emergency landing.
Competitors lag behind
Elbit’s competitor Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is also working on integrating its drones into civil airspace. More than a year ago, a “Heron 1” landed at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. The drone then returned to the Ein Shemer military base in the north of the country. The Bundeswehr is also stationed there for training on its Israeli drones.
In Europe, no government has yet issued a comparable licence for large drones, although research and development efforts are taking place in several countries. On behalf of the British Coastguard, a “Hermes 900” completed several test flights in unrestricted airspace, albeit off the west coast of Wales and not over populated areas. The drone was equipped with reconnaissance technology for sea rescue.
French and Spanish authorities had conducted a four-hour test flight with a US “Reaper” in their civilian airspace in December. The French military drone was “received” by civilian air traffic controllers in Bordeaux and handed over to air traffic control there at the Spanish border. After flying over the Pyrenees, the “Reaper” returned to Saragossa and then flew back to France over the Gulf of Lyon.
Image: “Hermes Starliner” (Elbit).