By JONATHAN DOWDALL
BRUSSELS – Despite huge interest in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for maritime surveillance and border security purposes, their true cost break-down compared to manned flights has rarely been expounded. Now, however, an EU-funded research project has concluded that UAS platforms may only produce cost savings in very specific circumstance.
The project in question is WIMAAS — or “wide maritime area airborne surveillance”. A three-year Security Research project funded at EUR 4 million (with an EU contribution of 68 percent), it was led by French aerospace firm Thales.
The research consortium set out to assess the technological concepts and cost-benefit balance of UAS solutions (also known as drones). The project concluded in November 2011, but has not widely distributed its findings. Though the research consortium’s dual-use technical findings remain confidential, SECURITY EUROPE has seen a copy of the project’s final official report, which provides a stripped down summary of its key findings.
WIMAAS began with the reasonable assumption that no single UAS platform type — whether small or large, high altitude or low — can fully meet the maritime surveillance needs for the EU’s borders. It thus aimed to create a “system-of-systems” building block concept whereby a range of different UAS platforms could be aligned to fill surveillance gaps.
The project used the input of seven EU member state authorities, as well as Frontex, the EU’s border management agency in Warsaw. Simulations and trial scenarios were put to these end-users for their operational and cost assessment. The missions ranged from drug trafficking between North Africa and Spain, illegal immigration between Libya and Italy, and a theoretical terrorist hijacking near Cyprus.
For each case, a “multi-sensor” concept was developed, with most end-users willing and able to identify where UAS of various types could be of assistance in each scenario. The consortium also found that most of the technological know-how to improve existing maritime surveillance is readily available.
Yet beyond the direct purchase cost of a drone itself, the operational, communications, maintenance and staffing costs of such solutions were unknown to the authorities consulted. This was the question addressed by WIMASS’ remaining work packages.
One area was crew cost estimates. Here, a range of simulations covering three patrol sectors of the Mediterranean was developed. Various crew configurations for radar, electronic operator and UAS pilot work-loads across several different periods were then tested.
The project found that the optimum staff configuration for a four-hour shift that operates an assortment of drone platforms could function with a 25-percent staff reduction compared to a fully manned patrol. Even in less optimal configurations, an average saving of 20 percent in staff wages was found by deploying UAS. However, crew fatigue during missions longer than four hours quickly multiplied personnel errors, indicating that shift length is still a major factor in staffing plans.
On the technology side, the equation grew even more complex. The consortium tried to consider every aspect of the drone supply chain, from base-unit processing costs to through-life maintenance in order to more accurately gauge the relative costs of UAS. Some of the drone-related cost burdens they considered include the increased power consumption demanded by large-scale processing of sensor data.
This was then aggregated against the per hour cost of flying each platform type. In line with common perceptions, the flying cost of almost all UAS types against manned aircraft was found to be significantly lower. Moreover in some cases, such as small-scale tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (TUAV), the running cost was 50 percent of that generated by a manned aircraft patrol.
Yet per-flight cost alone does not tell the whole story. For example, the consortium found that the increased communications equipment cost of some drones could be as much as 29 percent higher than for traditional platforms. Additionally, the research team found that airframe maintenance and pilot costs were, on average, remarkably similar between manned and unmanned services. Where drones did draw significant savings was in fuel and operator outlays.
In the final analysis, the cost balance becomes highly nuanced. Generally, drastically lower overall costs were only gained in certain niche fields. For instance, a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drone was cheaper for short patrols, but over longer distances, the slower speed compared to other platforms increased the operating hours, and cost, which negates other savings. For TUAVs, the cost inefficiency for long patrols multiplied even more dramatically — as high as 10 times that of a manned patrol.
As such, this study indicates that UAS only provide a cost saving if a range of diverse drone platforms are deployed side by side. Moreover, there is no combination of UAS maritime surveillance platforms that entirely eliminates the need for manned flights.
Now that the project has concluded, the command and control (C2), staffing and processing technology gaps highlighted by this study are being taken forward for further development.
The report does conclude with the insistence that the personnel savings identified could yield further efficiencies down the line. In particular, it speculates that the training costs for UAS operators will become lower than equivalent pilot licenses as more commercial courses become available on the market.
That may be so. Yet despite such savings, drone advocates still need to confront the research evidence that the infrastructure investment needed to get drones flying in large numbers, especially for C2 base stations, is far higher than popularly perceived.