UAVs: Composites&' next big push In aerospace

From humble beginnings as target drones and rudimentary surveillance devices during the Vietnam War, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are now taking the place of manned aircraft in what U.S. military planners refer to as "dirty, dangerous and dull" missions -- flights through hostile territory and areas of chemical

From humble beginnings as target drones and rudimentary surveillance devices during the Vietnam War, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are now taking the place of manned aircraft in what U.S. military planners refer to as "dirty, dangerous and dull" missions -- flights through hostile territory and areas of chemical or radiation threats as well as long surveillance flights, like those performed by the manned U-2 spy plane. Driving the push are two factors: the UAV's lower overall operating costs, compared to manned systems, and the potential to leave UAV systems in dry storage until needed, thus reducing the need for regular maintenance and repair. At the turn of the millennia, military planners were busy assuring U.S. government officials that the role of pilots and manned aircraft was not in question, but this is changing. The Pentagon's recently released Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005-2030, reports that, for almost any mission that can be conceived, a UAV can be designed.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is exploring mission concepts that are likely to be achieved only by using unmanned systems, such as a supersonic, oblique-wing bomber or the hypersonic Falcon system, designed to place ordinance anywhere in the world within two hours. In the Pentagon's Roadmap, it was stated that the use of UAVs would mitigate political exposure when military forces are deployed. As procurement budgets are strained by ongoing military activities and the price tags for manned systems and relief efforts for the two major hurricanes that recently rocked the Gulf Coast get bigger, it is increasingly likely that future aircraft procurement will pit UAVs against manned systems.

Consider DARPA's J-UCAS programs, Northrop Grumman's X-45 and The Boeing Co.'s X-47. Both companies have demonstrated that their composites-intensive, stealthy airframes can fly autonomously, deliver ordinance and fly in close formation with both manned and unmanned aircraft. Both firms also are busy building the next generation, full-scale versions of these aircraft, the X-45C and X-47B, which will incorporate more advanced programming and increased stealth characteristics to demonstrate full SEADS (suppression of enemy air defense systems) mission capabilities. It is anticipated that production UCAVs derived from these programs will enter full-scale development around the end of this decade and could displace some of the production of F/A-22 and F-35 fighters.

The U.S. is not alone. A variety of UAVs are in service throughout the world, and development of ever-more capable vehicles is regularly reported in aerospace and defense periodicals. IAI's MALAT division (Ben-Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel) has produced large, composite UAVs for surveillance and information-relay missions for many years. Dassault Aviation (Paris, France) is leading an international team in development of its Neuron unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) system. Alenia Aeronautica (Turin, Italy) and Saab (Linköping, Sweden) also have UCAV programs. Not confined to large fixed-wing aircraft, current programs include a number of rotorcraft systems and aircraft as small as the models flown by radio-control hobbyists.

How will the UAV trend impact the composites industry? Most UAVs (in production or planned) are highly composites-intensive. The use of advanced composites in manned aircraft has steadily increased over the last two decades -- up to 25 percent, by weight, in the current generation of military aircraft. But UAVs, though generally smaller than manned aircraft, contain much greater percentages, because lightweight materials are essential to program goals, which put a premium on payload capacity and low operating costs.

Further, UAV production accounted for only a few tens of thousands of pounds of the carbon fiber consumed at the start of this decade, but by 2020 the demand for advanced composite structures for military UAVs could conceivably rival that of their manned counterparts. General Atomics' family of Predator UAVs, for example, has a FRP fuselage and CFRP wing, which together weigh a few hundred pounds. The company is currently delivering about five aircraft per month, but a recent contract for 132 aircraft from the U.S. Army and the likely purchase of more systems by international military services, could dramatically increase delivery rates. The number of Predator squadrons within the U.S. military is expected to grow from three, currently, to 15 in the next few years (12 Predators per squadron). Likewise, the U.S. armed services alone plan to procure at least 50 more RQ-4 Global Hawks, a "B" version with expanded capabilities and a CFRP wing that weighs in excess of 1,365 kg/3,000 lb.

For the composites industry, this represents a "win or win bigger" situation. And, since most UAV systems undergo constant redevelopment and improvement and barriers to entry into the unmanned aircraft arena are lower than for manned systems, it is quite possible to become a component supplier for UAV systems even after they enter into production.

Bio:

Chris Red is the editor of Composite Market Reports' (Gilbert, Ariz.) monthly newsletters, Composites Industry Monthly and Advanced Composites Monthly, and manages the company's market research operations. Red has authored and co-authored dozens of market research studies and articles and is a regular speaker at Intertech's annual event, The Global Outlook for Carbon Fibers, and a contributing editor to CM Magazine.