The chemical weapons crisis in Syria presents a need for new military technologies which may lead to the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to detect NBC threats in the future. The United States military has studying the integration of chemical detection sensor payloads on the US Army’s current UAV inventory.

These include the AV RQ-11B Raven close-range mini-UAV of which more than 10,000 have been deployed and are in use by the US and several allied military forces.

Carrying a tiny 10 gram payload, the hand-launched Raven has an range of 7 miles and can remain airborne for 1 hr 30 min. Smiths Detection successfully created and demonstrated a chemical detection and identification system, able to fit in the interchangeable nose cone of an RQ-11B as a result of the collaborative efforts between Smiths Detection, AeroVironment, Inc. (AV), the US Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center and other US Department of Defense (DoD) laboratories.

In a successful demonstration at the US Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds, a ‘plug and play’ chemical sensor-equipped Raven was flown into a chemical cloud and successfully detected and identified the chemical, tracking the chemical vapor plume autonomously. The chemical sensor developed for the Raven is based on its Lightweight Chemical Detector (LCD), the commercial variant of the DoD’s Joint Chemical Agent Detector (JCAD) program. The LCD has been radically modified into a new cylindrical form factor unit known as the Chemical Sensor Module (CSM), yet it retains all of the critical chemical detection and identification capabilities of the LCD. Because of the size and weight, the CSM can be integrated into the AV Raven Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS) to make it capable of automatic detection, identification and quantification of dangerous chemical warfare agents. Advanced control algorithms developed by DoD laboratories allow the Raven to operate in a semi-autonomous mode analyzing the data collected by the CSM and determining chemical cloud size, direction and density in real-time.

The Boeing Insitu ScanEagle long-endurance mini-UAV is operated by all three US Services and has been selected by the UK MoD for the Royal Navy. Carrying a 3.5 kg payload the ScanEagle has incredible endurance of more than 16 hours at a loitering speed of 50 mph. Two ScanEagles were modified under a US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) for a programme known as Biological Combat Assessment System (BCAS) with one aircraft being adapted for the carriage of a payload to detect, track and collect samples of airborne biological warfare agents for recovery and analysis. The second ScanEagle would collect and record meteorological data and plume tracks with its standard EO/IR equipment. On completion of the test porgramme, the DTRA contract provides the option for more UAVs to the modified with the BCAS.

In the heavyweight class of UAV is the Northrop Grumman/IAI MQ-5B Hunter that has been acquired by Belgium, France and Israel, as well as the US Army. Carrying a 230 kg payload over a range of more than 100 miles, the Hunter has a 20-hour endurance. One of the MQ-5B’s optional mission payloads is a chemical threat detection system called Safeguard which combines an infra-red linescan (IRLS) with a thermally stabilized FFT infra-red spectrometer for cloud particle analysis.

In Europe, Italy’s Selex Galileo Falco MALE UAV, which has recently been procured by the United Nations of operations within the UN Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), can carry of 70 kg payload including NBC sensors.

At this year’s DSEI, Bruker Detection and ESG Elektroniksystem-und Logistik-GmbH announced that they have successfully initiated an industrial funded research & development programme to mount Bruker’s RAID gas trace detector for Chemical Warfare Agents (CWAs) and Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs) in to an Unmanned Mission Avionics Test Helicopter (UMAT). The UAV selected for the programme is an EMT Museco (Multi-sensor copter) that utilizes the Swiss Neo-300 air vehicle, a 9 ft-long unmanned helicopter that can carry a 100 kg payload over a range of 30 miles.

The project was established in response to clear emerging needs in the detection market for a CBRN UAV. The initial phase of design and assembly of the system has been successfully accomplished which also included fully integration of a command & control (C2) and data management capability and the flight test phase is about to begin. It is foreseen that on completion of the chemical aerial tests, a radiological component will be added.

Sebastian Meyer-Plath, the vice president of Bruker Corp, said the countries surrounding Syria will increasingly need such technologies in order to identify whether chemical agents from Syria are making their way into their borders. “The question is how quickly those countries will react with initiating urgent operation requirements. What we already see is there is a sharp increase in demand from Turkey,” he said.