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German Heron UAVs Now Fully Operational in Mali

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Heron on the Horizon

(Source: Bundeswehr; issued Feb 21, 2017)

In just six months’ time, the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw) deployed the Heron reconnaissance drone aircraft to Mali in support of the MINUSMA United Nations mission. The aircraft system is now fully operational.

Hot air shimmers over the runway. A gray aircraft turns onto the maneuvering area. The aircraft accelerates without a pilot in sight. The aircraft system takes off with a slight purring sound. About 4000 km away from the airfield located in the small Malian town of Gao, rousing cheers go up.

In just six months’ time the BAAINBw Project Team based in Koblenz managed to deploy the Heron 1 unmanned reconnaissance drone aircraft to Mali to support the MINUSMA mission. In late April 2016 BAAINBw in Koblenz received the direction by the Federal Ministry of Defense, in mid-July the contract was signed, in September first material transports began and in October the Heron had already been in flight. On 1 February 2017, the United Nations were informed of the “Full Operational Capability”.

“An excellent job,” said Manfred D., the Project Director, full of praise for his team. “The schedule was quite a challenge, but we managed.” The 50-year-old civil servant is the Chief of Branch L5.1, which is responsible for strategic Bundeswehr unmanned aircraft systems within BAAINBw. “We refer to these systems as HALE or MALE RPAS, that is to say High or Medium Altitude Long Endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems”, said Manfred D., who was born in Koblenz. Besides Heron 1, he and his Team are responsible for the planned procurement of the larger Heron TP, the EuroHawk and the EuroHawk successor.

A particular advantage of unmanned systems is the long mission endurance. There is no need to land the aircraft system as pilots can alternately command and control the UAS during missions. For this reason, flight operations may be conducted over several hours. The Bundeswehr already gained positive experience with reconnaissance aircraft systems in Afghanistan, where Heron 1 has completed more than 30 000 flight hours by the end of 2016.

“What is most important to us is to support the soldiers on deployment,” says Nico M. The 27-year-old civil servant (Technischer Regierungsrat) is the responsible Project Manager in Manfred D.’s team. Heron 1 is his first project. “After finishing my career training in late May 2016, I joined the team and soon afterwards I was given the opportunity to assume the overall responsibility for the Heron project,” he says happy about the confidence placed in him. “It gives me great satisfaction to directly support the soldiers with my work”.

Thanks to Heron 1, the potential reconnaissance radius of the German MINUSMA forces increased more than tenfold, from formerly 80 to now up to 900 kilometers. The on-board technology also improves the safety of the soldiers on the ground. With respect to the Heron’s reconnaissance capabilities Nico M. explains, “We have optical and infrared sensors on board and an imaging radar can be retrofitted, if required.” The live images are analyzed and provided to MINUSMA and, thus, serve to protect all forces participating in this international mission.

A lot needed to be done to render this possible. “Within a few weeks around 120 containers, each weighing up to 11 tons, were deployed to Mali by sea, air and land transport – this certainly kept us all on our toes,” explains Erich K. with respect to the challenges of the project. The civil servant (Technischer Regierungsoberamtsrat) has been part of the Heron 1 project team for eight years and, as Deputy Project Manager, supported the Project Manager during his first project.

“Being now able to inform the United Nations of the full operational capability means that, finally, the last function of the Heron is operational.” This function is the system’s satellite link. In addition to the line-of-sight radio control, missions can now be commanded and controlled via satellite, he explains. “Now Heron is even capable of flying to areas in which we do not have a direct line-of-sight from the aircraft to the antenna system in the camp.” Consequently, the entire reconnaissance range of Heron can now be exploited.

Heron 1 is manufactured by the Israeli company called Israel Aerospace Industries, which, tasked by BAAINBw, also conducts the training for the Bundeswehr pilots and sensor operators in Israel. In the mission country the system is operated and maintained by Airbus Defense and Space Airborne Solutions. Manfred D. (Leitender Technischer Regierungsdirektor) appreciates the commitment of all parties involved: “For the mission’s sake everyone acted in concert.”

For the time being, the contract negotiated between BAAINBw and industry, under which the full operational capability of three Heron 1 UAS will be ensured, remains in effect until February 2018. “If the German Bundestag extends the mandate for the Mission, we will be prepared to respond quickly,” says Manfred D. Until then, the now fully operational Heron will keep on circling above Mali, ensuring the safety of the MINUSMA forces on the ground.