JUDr. Jakub Fojtík, Ph.D., LL.M.
The Czech Primoco UAV SE unmanned aerial vehicles have recently been seen in the sky
more often which is related to the growth in the company’s business. This year, the company completed tests of a new configuration of its Primoco UAV One 150 aircraft and signed several co-operation agreements with various entities which should enable the deployment of these machines for completely new missions. Due to the global changes in aviation, there is an increased interest in unmanned aircraft, as they enable a wide range of tasks to be performed with significant cost savings.
The Primoco UAV One 150 aircraft is a high-performance aircraft with a wingspan of
almost 5 meters and maximum take-off weight of 150 kg. The weight limit was chosen with regard to the requirement to categorize an aircraft in military operations using the STANAG 4703 standard and in the civilian environment as a representative of a specific category (EASA). In practice, this requirement ensures a high degree of adaptability to the individual conditions of each customer and its aviation authority with the possibility of change.
The aircraft carries a payload of equipment of up to 30 kg while the same capacity is usually only achieved by much heavier & more expensive machines. The aircraft is equipped with a highly advanced autopilot, which ensures precise control of the aircraft during the day, at night and in difficult weather conditions. Thanks to the autopilot and the integrated radio altimeter, the aircraft offers fully automatic take-off and landing. The navigation system is specified for double redundancy in terms of safety and, in addition to primary GPS/Glonass/Galileo navigation, it is also equipped with an inertial navigation system to continue a flight after any failure of the primary navigation
or in an environment with a high level of electrical interference.
The datalink for signal transmission between the aircraft and the ground control station ensures the transmission of control telemetry over a distance of up to 200 km and also provides online data transmission from the onboard sensors. The payload can be installed in the aircraft in several positions, such as the aircraft nose, the middle of the fuselage or on the sides. The aircraft offers not only a high load capacity for special sensors, but also a high degree of configurability and a very large installation space which allows it to carry sensors usually used on manned aircraft or much larger UAVs.
In terms of the capabilities of the aircraft at the level of each unit and in aggregate, the aircraft significantly exceeds the requirements of aviation regulations.
This year, the development of the production version of the Primoco UAV One 150 aircraft was completed. It underwent several changes, including the installation of a new type of landing gear capable of better handling operations from lower quality runways, redesign of wiring to reduce maintenance requirements and increase safety, modification of aircraft software but mainly the integration of new high-end sensors. The resulting configuration, which is now offered to customers, enhances parameters such as flight endurance to over 15 hours.
The fact that this value is not just theoretical but real was demonstrated by the company on April 16, 2020, when one of the aircraft flew from the factory airport at Písek – Krašovice and completed a continuous flight lasting 15 hours and 3 minutes. In total, the machine flew 1,650 km with an average consumption of 2.2 litres per hour of flight. This flight is not only a Czech record but it holds the lead position in the world in the given weight category. It is the endurance of the aircraft that is one of its greatest strengths.
Primoco UAV SE, the Czech unmanned aircraft developer, is taking great strides forward and has obtained permission to conduct foreign trade in military equipment and also entered the Prague Stock Exchange.
In order for military customers to take full advantage of the Primoco UAV One 150 aircraft, Primoco UAV SE has initiated steps to certify the aircraft according to the STANAG 4703 standard. The first step was to obtain the authorization of the production (POA) and development (DOA) and in parallel there is a longer period for certification for the aircraft itself.
Above the Czechoslovak Border
The real maturity of each aircraft will be verified by its actual deployment. The aircraft is now gaining experience from live operation on three continents. In May of this year, the media reported on the deployment of the Primoco UAV One 150 to guard the Czech border with Slovakia and Austria along a border line of over 200 km. The deployment of the aircraft was requested by the Czech Police Aviation Service, which wanted to verify deployment of an unmanned aerial vehicle to perform these tasks.
From Monday to Friday, day and night, the aircraft flew almost 2,000 km with a maximum distance of over 60 km from the control station. It was the first Beyond Visual Line Of Sight flight over inland territory in the Czech Republic and the EU.
For this purpose, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Czech Republic declared a no-fly zone to ensure operational safety in the area. For these flights, the aircraft was equipped with an Epsilon 175 camera system equipped with a daylight HD camera with a 30x zoom and a thermal imaging channel with a cooled chip and a 15x zoom and GPS location function. Therefore, the operator could unambiguously determine the GPS coordinates of the point of interest at any stage of the flight with the possibility of automatic recognition and tracking of the subject of interest (object tracking).
The most active operator, however, is the Malaysian Air Force which uses Primoco UAV One 150 for patrol missions and air command in several areas of its sea and land borders. The aircraft is equipped with an EO/MWIR unit and flies up to the limit of 200 km range and performs flights for several hours every day. The security forces in Malaysia have managed to intercept hundreds of intruders. In these cases, the local air force immediately sends an intervention team of armed helicopters and the Coast Guard sends fast boats while the Primoco UAV One 150 monitors the intruder until the security forces reach the location, and then monitors the entire operation and provides the command staff with live imaging data on its progress.
In June of this year, the Primoco UAV One 150 achieved another first when the aircraft was controlled in real time at a distance of 9,700 km. Due to the closure of the border, Primoco UAV SE technicians were not able to travel to carry out servicing and modernize the aircraft at the customer’s premises in Malaysia, so everything took place remotely.
Only customer staff were on-site, providing a safety team. With the help of local technicians, all maintenance work was carried out remotely, and then the first operational flights in the area were flown. However, the aircraft was completely controlled from the company’s headquarters throughout the flight.
Wide-ranging Sensor Options
The Primoco UAV One 150 is currently being assessed by several military customers, as it offers the largest carrying capacity for special equipment, control range and flight endurance in its class. Primoco UAV SE is constantly working to expand the possibilities of using the aircraft.
For example, a version with a multi-sensor (multipayload) configuration of EO/MWIR units Epsilon 175 equipped with an HD day channel with 30x zoom with the possibility of LLLTV and SD thermal imaging (MWIR) channel with 15x zoom. This camera represents the current standard of the aircraft and is fully integrated into the UAV control system. It enables a survey operation to be carried out day and night and, thanks to the MWIR spectrum, to a certain extent even under difficult viewing conditions.
The software contains geolocation for one-click determination of GPS coordinates of any object of interest and their transfer to the pilot to change the flight profile or to the C4I system. An interesting feature is the automatic tracking of a static object (the camera rotates during manoeuvring to maintain contact) and of a dynamic target (object tracking). The camera represents an economically affordable solution with excellent parameters. The second sensor was an electronically deflected synthetic aperture electron beam (AESA) SAR radar from a leading US manufacturer, Imsar.
The selected model of radar gives the Primoco UAV One 150 much better detection capacity than larger unmanned aerial vehicles carrying radars with a mechanically deflected antenna. The newly integrated NSP-7 is the largest of Imsar’s radar family and is commonly carried by Beechcraft King Air aircraft.
The Primoco UAV One 150 is the first UAV in the world to integrate a similar type of radar of its class. The radar range allows for stand-off reconnaissance of an area of interest, regardless of weather and dispersion conditions.
It offers advanced image processing automation and the operator can choose between Strip, Spot and GMTI modes, where highly advanced software allows real-time results to be seen. The first mode is classic continuous imaging of the surface, where the aircraft monitors the space below and creates a digital image of the landscape with the possibility of detecting vegetation, buildings, vehicles or people. The second mode allows the creation of 3D data and complete imaging of the specified area of interest at different viewing angles during arrival, overflight and take-off. Finally, GMTI mode allows automatic detection of moving targets, whether people, vehicles or vessels.
The sensitivity of the radar is at such a level that it is even able to detect objects moving slower than a human walking. The most exciting capability is the so-called coherent change detection (CCD) mode, where the radar allows changes in the environment caused by changes in the surface to be detected from the air and is able to detect not only tracks from vehicles in the field, but also improvised IED charges on roads and tracks. The radar operator works with an image library system and is able to detect any potentially dangerous changes in the environment in real time.
In addition to SAR radar, the company is also preparing the integration of UWB radar to detect targets covered by vegetation. This feature is especially required in South-East Asia, where the company has already delivered several aircraft. A similar device made it possible to detect the movement of people or vehicles in densely forested areas where conventional optical or thermal imaging devices fail. Radar devices are in principle intended only for military customers, to whom the aircraft equipped in this way offers a wide range of detection options with minimal costs and maximum safety. The operational safety situation for some customers makes it very difficult to deploy operationally demanding & financially costly manned aircraft over similar areas, and unmanned aerial vehicles are a natural and effective replacement.
The effective range of radar limits the flight altitude and thus the crews of manned aircraft are exposed to the risk of fire from the ground. This risk is largely eliminated with Primoco UAV SE unmanned aircraft as the aircraft does not have a crew and also has very quiet operation and small size make it virtually impossible to detect when flying at its working altitude.
Additionally, the company is working on the integration of an interference (jamming) system for stand-in and stand-off interference. In this area, too, the company managed to find another partner and prepare a new solution. Another device integrated into the aircraft is a camera with a scanning resolution of 150 MPix, which is able to take detailed pictures of the surface and able to detect objects the size of a payment card. The images are again provided with GPS coordinates for precise determination of the position of the object of interest and can be combined to create realistic map. All sensors are integrated as modules and can be interchanged during flight preparation so that a configuration change does not take more than 30 minutes. Therefore, one device can perform different missions during the day and provide the user with outputs from different sensors. In addition, a large number of sensors can be carried and used simultaneously.
From the point of view of the operational safety of unmanned aerial vehicles, pilot training remains a key area, for which there are no existing standards in the field of legislation.
Pilots of remotely piloted aircraft are divided into external and internal pilots in most countries with extensive experience with UAVs. They internally operate the aircraft using the Ground Control Station and after pre-flight preparation and thorough flight planning, including the selection of a suitable route and altitude profile, the aircraft is controlled with the help of advanced automation. With the Primoco UAV One 150, it is possible to ensure the complete course of the flight from take-off to landing, as the machine is equipped with full automation of take-off and landing with high accuracy. This, of course, applies in the conditions of a standard flight envelope. In case of operational need, exceeding the flight envelope limits (most often for high crosswinds, which can change dramatically during a fifteen-hour flight) or possible non-standard situations (such as defects caused by damage to the aircraft during flight, etc.), the aircraft is piloted by an external pilot in a fundamentally similar way to an RC aircraft control station.
This control takes place primarily in the area of supervision, where, for example, the
autopilot ensures the return to the airport area and then its control is taken over by an external pilot.
Training of external pilots is a demanding discipline, for which classic RC models are still used around the world. The disadvantage of this solution is not only the relatively high price due to the normal accidents during training, but mainly the inability to simulate complex conditions (such as the effect of weather, reduced visibility or defects) and thus has relatively limited efficiency. Therefore, Primoco UAV SE in co-operation with the Czech VR Group a.s. has developed a fully synthetic training system based on virtual reality technology. This external pilot simulator, whose main element is digital 3D glasses with an interconnected control system, allows complete safe repetitive training of various tasks in which the instructor can introduce intentional “faults” (e.g. engine shutdown, control surface lock, asymmetric surface function, etc.) or external influences (simulation of ambient air traffic, simulation of rain or snow and ice for different adhesion conditions after landing, simulation of wind with different vector, simulation of variable viewing conditions in fog, smoke or clouds), etc. Of course, the simulator also offers the possibility of replaying the flight and flight analysis with an instructor. The virtual environment in which the simulator works, in turn, gives the possibility to configure it as
“tailored” to customers and, for example, to use a synthetic copy of the future actual place of operation as a virtual training base. In addition to this external pilot simulator, Primoco UAV also offers a complete internal pilot simulator, i.e. a real replica of the ground control station. Their interconnection then offers the possibility of comprehensive training of the entire crew.
The experience of VR Group a.s. enables the connection of the UAV simulation system with other customer simulators and thus also provides a fully synthetic training in the co-operation of UAV pilots with other components of the aviation. In terms of scope, this is the most modern simulation concept that is available, which has already been very successfully tested during a two-month trial deployment in Israel, i.e. in the place where modern UAVs were created.
The development of the Primoco UAV One 150 unmanned aerial vehicle has been ongoing since 2015, and in the near future the company is aiming to obtain a proper type certificate for the machine which would complete the development stage. Compared to manned aviation, however, legislation in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles is still in development and only at the NATO level is there a binding legal code. The certification will therefore require close co-operation with aviation authorities, as it will run in parallel with the development of legislation in this area.
The origin of the aircraft is today a completely unique feature. It is completely designed, built and developed in the Czech Republic, without any state support, subsidies or bank loans, and contains only three components from abroad. These are the autopilot, datalink and secondary radar transponder.
The certification “Made in the Czech Republic” is therefore not just a label in the case of the Primoco UAV One 150, but also an important selling point, as our country continues to have a good reputation in the aviation world.