Stratospheric UAVs could be next big thing

Near-space drones would remain on station for months at a time

The need for a platform that can help combat improvised explosive devices and track terrorists and insurgents over large areas for long periods might spark a demand for so-called stratospheric unmanned aerial vehicles, reports Colin Clark at DOD Buzz.

The anticipated demand for stratospheric UAVs, which can hover above the jet stream for several months or more, might signal a long-term shift in the UAV market, according to Ed Herlik. He is lead author of a market forecast report on the role UAVs play in counterinsurgency published by the Market Intel Group, where he is managing partner.

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The report predicts persistent stratospheric UAVs will significantly alter the marketplace for both platforms and payloads within the next five years. “Persistent surveillance (months or a year on station above the Jet Stream) is one capability that will significantly enhance the ability to combat an insurgency while minimizing troop risk and ground commitment,” the report states.

The technology is not currently under development at DOD. However, one program that might be interested is the Joint IED Defeat Organization, which is responsible for developing ways to counter IEDs.

The stratospheric UAV concept for countering insurgency would compete for funding against other platforms such as aerostats and airships, which have limitations. Aerostats are tethered to the ground, and therefore are limited in the amount of terrain they can survey. As for airships, they are driven by propellers and must maneuver to hold position against the wind. However, near-space UAVs would sail above the Jet Stream at an altitude of 50,000 to 70,000 feet where there is relatively little wind.

Two of the compelling qualities of stratospheric UAVs are that they can produce a great deal of solar-generated electric power to run lightweight sensors for long periods of time and they can stay on station for a long time at a low cost. A stratospheric UAV might cost between $3 million to $5 million to deploy.

Lockheed Martin has been developing an aerostat platform under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program known as Integrated Sensor Is Structure.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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