EYES IN THE SKY
Asian Military Review|November/December 2020
Roaming UAVs ease airborne border and coastal surveillance
JR Ng

Enduring territorial disputes, illegal immigration, transnational crime, and domestic and international terrorism in Asia-Pacific continue to drive regional interest in the protection of long and often porous land and maritime boundaries.

While the imperative to monitor national borders is well understood, the reality on the ground for most regional governments is that it is practically impossible to entirely secure the vast land and coastal stretches that separates them from each other.

The size of these boundaries for the largest countries can be staggering. India has over 15,106km (9,386 miles) of shared land borders with seven other countries – with at least three being actively disputed – and 7,516km (4,670 miles) of coastline (including island territories), while Thailand in mainland Southeast Asia has over 4,800km (3,000 miles) of land boundaries with four other countries and over 3,200km (2,000 miles) of coastline.

The traditional approach to border surveillance includes monitoring by fixed cameras, ground sensors, security and patrol vehicles, and manned aircraft. However, there is a growing interest to field unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to boost situational awareness for deployed personnel and vehicles suspicious activity along treacherous terrain and to get a closer look at areas that may be inefficient or unsafe for patrol.

Moreover, larger and more capable UAVs configured specifically for long-endurance missions are increasingly being seen as potential surrogates for costly and resource-intensive manned aircraft or troop deployments. Analysts note that UAVs typically have the advantage over their manned counterparts in these areas: time on station; cost per flight hour; lower risk to human life; and manned-unmanned teaming efficiencies.

Dublin-based market research company Research and Markets noted that the Asia Pacific UAV market will grow at a 2020-2026 compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.8 percent with an addressable cumulative market value of $37.42 billion, largely driven by supportive government and military initiatives across the region as the geopolitical situation continues to deteriorate.

Small but effective

Sensor technology advances mean small tactical UAVs such as the Boeing-Insitu ScanEagle, which is being delivered to several Southeast Asia countries, can now perform land or maritime surveillance tasks previously only possible with larger aircraft.

The ScanEagle UAV is just 1.6m (5.2 feet) long with a wingspan of 3.1m (10ft) and has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of around 48 pounds (22 kilograms). Designed to accommodate either a heavy fuel or gasoline engine, the air vehicle is designed to stay aloft for periods of over 24 hours carrying a range of payloads including high-definition electro-optical (EO) or medium-wave infrared (MWIR) sensors, dual imaging EO/IR systems, as well as a growing range of novel sensors.

The UAV is launched from a trailer-mounted pneumatic catapult when operated on land, and a compact low-pressure pneumatic catapult when deployed on board ships. Recovery during maritime surveillance would require the SkyHook system, which secures the UAV in mid-air.

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