The Luftwaffe's Heron 1 medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has been operating over Afghanistan for 18 months, and has been fully operational since May. Since the takeoff of the first Heron 1 from Mazar-e-Sharif on March 17, 2010, this UAV and two others have flown more than 5,000 hr. over Afghanistan.

One-fifth of those hours were racked up between May 14 and July 11, an average of 17 hr. a day. This reflects high demand for the UAV, which is being leased by Germany until October 2012. Typical missions last 16 hr. but have stretched to 28.5 hr.

Heron 1 provides the German-led Regional Command North of NATO's International Security Assistance Force with surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition and identification, and escorts convoys and patrols. Thanks to satellite communications, it covers the command's entire area of responsibility.

Heron 1 flew its first operational mission using satellite data links in January, allowing the Luftwaffe to declare the system's initial operational capability on Feb. 18. Operation had been restricted to the area around Mazar-e-Sharif as communications were limited to 200 km (125 mi.), with high-altitude missions beyond this range if weather permitted. Satellite communications allow Heron 1 to operate behind mountains or at low altitudes, says Dirk F., one of Rheinmetall's four air vehicle operators. (Rules do not allow his full name to be disclosed.)

The system is operated under a lease with Rheinmetall and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). The Israeli company supplied the Heron 1 with electro-optical sensors, synthetic aperture radar and documentation, and trained Rheinmetall and Luftwaffe operators. Two shifts of 19 Rheinmetall employees operate the system 24/7. The availability rate is more than 90%, which translates to 480 flying hr. a month. The employees are responsible for maintenance, inspections and running a service center around the clock. Four employees with pilot qualifications (three are former Luftwaffe F-4F pilots) control Heron 1 during most takeoffs, landings and all technical check flights. Luftwaffe personnel operate the system during missions.

Dirk F. emphasizes the system's role in detecting improvised explosive devices (IED). Other uses include persistent observation; support of ground operations; reconnaissance, identification and verification of targets; checking routes and monitoring territory, convoys and patrol escorts; object protection; and support of security forces, police and civil emergency responders.

Flight planning starts the day before a mission and continues into the early hours of the mission day, says Dirk F. Takeoff is at 0500, with Heron 1 arriving over its operational area an hour later for persistent observation of movement patterns and for mapping, checking routes and convoy escort. Likely interruptions include ad hoc tasking to help secure an accident site or support troops in contact. After being relieved by a second UAV at 2200, Heron 1 flies back to Mazar-e-Sharif, supporting object protection forces at Camp Mamal on the way and landing automatically at midnight. Just after landing, the UAV is inspected by Rheinmetall technicians and prepared for the next flight.

Flying at 15,000-20,000 ft. with its engine in fuel-saving mode—high and quiet enough not to be heard—Heron 1 observes behavior patterns that help determine whether Afghans are digging for agricultural purposes or planting IEDs. Observation of movement patterns and mapping is done by synthetic aperture radar or day/night camera. Imagery can be seen in control stations in Mazar-e-Sharif and displayed on the laptops of troops in combat, who can be talked through a situation—for example, by being told where insurgents are. Dirk F. reports positive feedback from troops after they return to camp and tells of dangerous missions being canceled if Heron support is unavailable.

Jurgen Michel, head of sales and airborne systems at Rheinmetall Defense, expects an extension of the Heron 1 lease beyond October 2012. The contract was signed in 2009 after a procurement tender for the UAV was canceled due to the Luftwaffe's Urgent Operational Requirement for a MALE reconnaissance capability in Afghanistan. The first Heron 1 took off less than five months after the contract was signed with Rheinmetall.