28 October 2022
Innovaero has been awarded a contract by the Australian Department of Defence to develop a sovereign loitering munition with a range of 200km and a choice of payloads.
So, while mostly one thinks of aircraft as being designed to avoid crashing, Loitering Munitions are the opposite; they are designed with the express purpose of crashing - on target.
Loitering munitions are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) equipped with a warhead. They are launched with the intention of loitering in enemy territory waiting for a ground-based target to be identified, unlike most missiles which go direct to target.
UAVs have proven themselves valuable in recent conflicts and the Ukraine War has verified their potency.
They are relatively inexpensive, hard to shoot down, and highly effective as a weapon or for reconnaissance.
The Innovaero OWL (One Way Loitering) munition’s maiden flight was in May this year five months after design work began.
Loitering munitions are Kamikaze drones
While the exact capabilities of the Innovaero OWL are sensitive, we can speak generally about the Loitering Munition concept.
Loitering Munitions are UAVs equipped with a warhead. They are essentially suicide drones (aka Kamikaze Drones) because they don't fire a weapon at the target; the whole drone is the weapon.
Loitering Munitions perform one-way missions.
They fly into enemy territory and fly a specified holding or search pattern above an area where targets are expected. Their airspeed is set for fuel economy to maximize loitering time.
When a target is detected, the loitering munition increases to maximum speed selecting a collision course with the aim of hitting the target and detonating the warhead.
The approach pattern can be varied from a near vertical dive from high altitude, to a tree line hugging low level approach and even flying a devious course to evade defences.
If flying in at low level, in the final moments the UAV can "pop-up" and dive onto the target. This is dependent on the type of target being attacked and an assessment of how best to maximize damage and evade defences.
Target identification can be autonomous via the UAV's own sensor package or remotely directed to the target by the operator. However, at all times there is a human in the loop making the final decision to strike.
Target verification is done for ethical, safety, and economy; the ethical issues are well understood and there is nothing indiscriminate about OWL.
Safety can apply to ensuring no harm to own forces. With respect to economy, knocking out a 4WD vehicle (for example) may not have the same tactical value as destroying a tank.
Sensor systems for identifying targets
There are various sensor methods for identifying targets:
- Video sensors using AI based image recognition and moving target indication.
- Infrared sensors to detect vehicle heat signature enabling night time operation.
- Radar sensors are particularly useful for taking-out ground based air defence systems.
The exact configuration of the Innovaero OWL is unknown and likely still to be determined as the project is being developed. However, the guiding design principles for loitering munitions are a compromise of...
- Cost: Being single use aircraft, Loitering Munitions need to be low-cost and should be cheaper than the target and other weapons (e.g. Javelin missiles).
- Warhead (or payload): appropriate warhead and sufficient explosive power and type while keeping weight to a minimum.
- Range and loitering time: Payload and aircraft design and size dictate flying time.
- Launch system: generally launched either via catapult or tube launched.
- Control system: fit for purpose while minimizing cost and preferably mobile.
- Communication system: the loitering munition needs to be in contact with the launch base to report its position, operational status, sensor data, and to receive commands.
- Sensor package: there are numerous sensor types with varying capabilities. Again, cost is a key consideration. Simple but good enough is the goal.
- Manufacturability: designing for performance and effort is one challenge, however developing a UAV that is relatively easy and quick to manufacture at modest cost is critical and being able to deploy at scale cost effectively. A key advantage of loitering munitions is they help provide affordable mass.
- Portability: transporting multiple loitering munitions along with their launch and control systems requires being as portable as possible.
While in theory, any competent UAV company can build something that flies like a loitering munition, creating a weapon system with the required capabilities and solving the competing requirements and constraints (and meet the ADF requirements) is the real challenge.
What makes Innovaero stand out from the pack is the ability to rapidly develop a practical design that meets the conflicting criteria. Easier said than done.
Innovaero is a Perth based aeronautical engineering and product development company that designs and builds various tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and now loitering munitions.
Historically Innovaero has focused on aircraft modifications, CASA certification, and high-end aerial camera array design and manufacture. Innovaero also has composite fabrication and repair facilities.
The Innovaero team is packed with engineering capability in a range of disciplines including aeronautical design and engineering, electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, software engineering and optical sensor technologies.
In recent years Innovaero has turned its attention to designing and building UASs and has developed a range of mainly VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) UASs focusing on both commercial and military applications.
The ADF contract to develop a sovereign capability for loitering munitions and other large UASs is an important step forward for Australia reducing dependence on foreign suppliers. This is part of hardening-up Australia's defence industrial capabilities and resiliance in an increasingly uncertain and hostile world.
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