Denel Seeker 400 ready for test flights.

The prototype of Denel Dynamics’ latest Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV), the Seeker 400, has been completed and is due to make its maiden flight in the first quarter of 2012, the company announced.

UAVs have seen increased use over the last ten years, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. The vehicles often carry out reconnaisance and precision strike missions.

“The decision by Denel to invest in this new product was mainly based on the global requirements for this capability. Based on the business case, Denel decided to fund the development from its balance sheet,” said Tsepo Monaheng, Executive for Denel UAVS.

Although the USA and Israel dominate the global market, Denel said, there is scope for South Africa to use local skills to create market-leading UAVS to a broad spectrum of countries. This market is estimated at $14-billion per annum.  The local UAV industry aims to capture in excess of 20 percent of this end of the market, according to the press release

The aircraft has already been displayed in mock-up form at the Africa Aerospace and Defence Show (AAD) 2010, in Cape Town. There is already a launch customer for the Seeker 400 who operated the Seeker I tactical UAV in the early 1990s. Two other countries which currently operate the Seeker II are also interested in the Seeker 400 because the new aircraft can be controlled by simply using their existing Seeker II control stations.

The Seeker 400 can stay in the air for 16 hours and can simultaneously operate two payloads. It’s also capable of taking off from unprepared tracts of land.

The vehicle currently has a range of 250 km, because it uses only line-of-sight communications, but it could be upgraded to use satellite communications. With the use of the existing tactical ground station (TGS), the range may be extended to 750kms, Denel said.

Globally, UAVS are becoming ever more important and more widely used. Although costs are coming down, UAVS are not necessarily cheaper or easier to operate than crewed aircraft – some top-of-the-range UAVs are very expensive. But the fact that they have no human on board means they can be sent into high-risk environments and they can be kept aloft much longer than a conventional aircraft.

The availability of capable and affordable South African UAVs has obvious benefits for national security as well as crime fighting, disaster management, election monitoring and search and rescue, according to Denel.  UAVs are also utilised in the agricultural, mining, health and environmental sectors.

The company also claimed that UAVs will be used by a diverse range of industries over the next five years – from policing poachers on land and coastlines to keeping an eye on livestock on farms.