Russia’s First MALE UAV Is Revealed

 - August 15, 2017, 7:23 AM
The Orion UAV was shown flying at the recent MAKS show—but only in this video. (Image: KT Group)

Russia’s first medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV system was shown in part and in video at last month’s MAKS show near Moscow. But the privately owned Kronshtadt (KT) Group that displayed the Orion says that more than one example has flown, and the UAV is ready for production. KT has been developing it under a contract with the Russian MoD won in 2011. At MAKS, KT signed an agreement with Rosboronexport to market the Orion for export.

The recent publicity may have been prompted by KT’s need to raise funds to complete the project. IFK Sistema, a business chaired by a prominent Russian oligarch Vladimir Evtushenkov, acquired full control over KT in October 2015. But this group is now experiencing difficulties servicing its debts and investing in Orion, Fregat and other unmanned aviation ventures.

The initial version of Orion has a gross weight of 1,200 kg (2,600 pounds) and is designed for reconnaissance only. But an armed version could be developed, claimed KT’s chief executive officer Armen Isaakyan. KT said that during the past five years since the Orion project began in earnest, it has managed to form a capable industrial team and “developed technologies that never before existed in this country…and those we could not procure from the West.” According to Isaakyan, a number of prototypes have flown and they have proved the advertised flight performance.

KT revealed only limited data about the Orion: a payload of 200 kg (440 pounds); maximum altitude of 7,500 meters (24,750 feet); an operational radius of 250 km (135 nm); and an endurance of up to 24 hours. Moreover, only an incomplete airframe was shown at MAKS; it was lacking its right wing plus a handful of  components. The UAV has a similar appearance to the American MQ-1 Predator, with a wingspan estimated at 50 feet and carbon-fiber fuselage with load-bearing structure made using modern diffusion-bonding techniques. The Orion’s onboard systems are electric-only, with no pneumatics or hydraulics. KT did not release any information on the powerplant, which appears to be a supercharged diesel driving a pusher propeller.  

The Orion features an electro-impulse de-icing system and other innovative solutions enabling it to operate in “an extended area of climatic conditions, including the extreme North.” It is likely to come equipped with high-speed satcom using a 600-mm (23.6-inch) parabolic antenna operating in 11-15 kHz wideband, which KT exhibited at MAKS 2017, saying that ground trials will start in September.

The video shows the first prototype equipped with a gyro-stabilized turret under the forward fuselage, housing electro-optics operating in the visual and infrared spectrums. There are high-resolution cameras mounted in the mid-fuselage. Alternatively, the Orion can carry AESA radar for mapping and target detection, plus equipment for locating hostile air defense and radio-emitting objects. Collected data is fed in real time to a road-transportable container serving as control post managing four to six UAVs.

KT employs 1,300 and claims to have been in the high-tech market for a quarter of a century, with 10 years of experience in unmanned aerial and maritime systems. Rosboronexport said that there is demand for the Orion in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, and revealed a broader plan to win “a substantial part of the global market for UAVs” with this and other designs.  

The Orion’s future is likely to be decided by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended a demonstration of the UAV behind closed doors.