UAV supplier handed critical wartime duties; Firm to take off, land device to reduce military’s liabilities in event of crash


The Ottawa Citizen

Monday, August 18, 2008

By David Pugliese

The Ottawa Citizen


Employees of a British Columbia firm supplying surveillance drones for the military in Afghanistan will be playing a greater role than first thought in the operations of the system as they pilot the aircraft during take offs and landings from Kandahar.


Canadian military personnel, who will be training on the drones in Alberta and Nova Scotia over the coming months, will still handle the more sensitive flying of the unmanned aerial vehicles in seeking out insurgents and collecting intelligence information.


But by having civilian personnel at the helm of the drones during the critical phases of take off and landing, the military will be off the financial hook for any crashes such as those that affected another unmanned aerial vehicle, the Sperwer, sent to Afghanistan several years ago.


The Sperwer unmanned aerial vehicles were originally purchased for Canada’s 2003 mission in Kabul, but were also later sent to Kandahar. The crashes and rough landings that damaged the drones were blamed on a combination of inexperienced military personnel flying the aircraft and the harsh operating conditions in the field.


This time around, MacDonald Detwiller and Associates of Richmond, B.C., will bear the cost of any accidents on take off or landing. The firm is leasing the Israeli-built Heron drone to the Canadian military for a two-year period.


“We wanted to make sure the department’s exposure to risk was minimized in every way possible,” explained Canadian Forces Lt.-Col. Alex Tupper, who is in the air force directorate handling unmanned aerial vehicles. “Having the contractor responsible for the most critical phase of flight was one way to mitigate some of the risks.”


Two other firms withdrew from the competition, citing concerns that the contract placed too much risk on the contractor. The winning firm is required to provide the unmanned aerial vehicles for a specific period and if it can not meet that, it will be penalized financially.


But MDA officials say they aren’t concerned because of the reliability of the Heron. The drone is outfitted with a highly reliable auto-pilot system, notes David Hargreaves, a senior MDA official. “Landing and takeoff requires some more specialized skills,” he said. “They (DND) felt they would like the contractor to have responsibility for that.”


The autopilot system for landing makes use of a global positioning system that helps guide the drone via information being fed by a satellite. The MDA contractors will provide maintenance and support, as well, for the drones in Kandahar.


MDA was awarded the $95-million contract for the Heron lease earlier this month.


The Heron is different from the military’s current fleet of Sperwer drones in that the Sperwer is catapulted into the air by a special launcher and uses a parachute system to land. The Heron will take off and land like an airplane.


The Heron is expected to help reduce the number of insurgent attacks. The drones could be used to scout out convoy routes and other areas, scanning for insurgents, or using sensors to observe Taliban planting improvised explosive devices.



For more Canadian Forces and Defence Department news go to David Pugliese’s Defence Watch at:




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