Program Dossier: IAI Heron
[Editor’s Note: This program dossier is excerpted from the full program profile, which is available to Aviation Week Intelligence Network subscribers at awin.aviationweek.com.]
The Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron is a Group 5 UAS powered by a single Rotax 914 4-cylinder piston engine supplying 115 hp (86 kW) of power to the propeller. Since its inception the family has spawned a variety of scaled-up or -down derivatives with different powerplants, including the Heron TP, Super Heron HF, Heron MK. II and Tactical Heron.
The Heron originated in a market study performed by IAI in the 1990s. This study indicated an emerging requirement in both the civil and military markets for a UAS with an endurance in excess of 24 hr., an operational altitude between 25,000 ft. and 30,000 ft. and the capability to carry a variety of avionics and sensors. It also needed to have a short take-off and landing capability, low stall speed of 50 kt (93 km/h), mean time between critical failures of more than 100 hr. and a mean time between loss in excess of 3000 hr. These requirements make Heron a medium altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAS.
The Heron entered production in 1994. In 2007, the Heron became compliant with Israeli civil aerospace management requirements and was certified to operate in Israeli airspace for non-military purposes. The Israeli Air Force procured its first Herons under a September 2005 contract valued at more than $50 million ($66.4 million USD in 2021).
The Heron has a 54.5-ft. (16.6-m) wing with an SA-21 airfoil and a high aspect ratio of 21. It was designed with a lightweight structure incorporating sandwiched composites, with polystyrene and NOMEX honeycomb cores. Where required the composites are reinforced with unidirectional spars.
The Heron has retractable landing gear laid out in a tricycle arrangement, and the main gear retract into bays built into the booms on either side of the fuselage. The nosewheel is steered electrically, and the brake disks on the main gear are hydraulically operated. Because of the high wing, the gear bays are higher than the fuselage and accordingly do not obstruct any sensors mounted under it. The fuselage itself is trapezoidal in shape and has 23.6 in. (60 cm) of ground clearance with the gear extended.
The wing attachments and hardpoints are part of the composite structure to minimize the use of metallic fittings and fasteners. The same technique is used for connecting the wing inner and outer sections, the boom-to-wing attachments and the engine mount. The Heron is all-weather capable and includes an anti-icing system. Its flaps are noteworthy for their high length of travel, from -15-deg. to 60-deg.
The Heron is powered by a single Rotax 914 reciprocating engine. The Rotax 914 is essentially a Rotax 912 fitted with a single-stage turbocharger supplied by Garrett (now Honeywell). It is a four-stroke, four-cylinder liquid-cooled engine with an electric starter and a double ignition system. It can supply 115 hp (86 kW) of power at take-off and 100 hp (74.6 kW) continuous up to 15,000 ft. (4,572 m). The engine supplies power to a two-blade, variable-pitch propeller with a 2.3-ft. (1.7-m) diameter.
The Heron’s original avionics were based on those of the IAI/TRW (now Northrop Grumman) RQ-5 Hunter UAS. They are redundant and stored in a single bay on a removable rack to ease maintenance. The Heron can taxi, takeoff and land autonomously.
The aircraft is equipped with two 28 V alternators running off the engine that are wired in parallel to share load. Each supplies a maximum 3.5 kW of electrical power to the Heron in continuous operation, for a total of 7 kW available for flight and mission avionics. In practice not all of the current can be shared in parallel mode, so a minimum of 6.3 kW is available.
Heron has a Ku-band ELK-1891 satellite communications (SATCOM) terminal so it can operate over the horizon. If it loses datalink to its ground control station, it automatically returns home. It was originally controlled from the MALAT Advanced Ground Control Station (AGCS) but can now also be controlled from the newer Unified Control Station (UCS).
The Heron has two internal bays to house its sensor payloads, one in the nose and one in the center of the fuselage. The nose bay has a volume of 153 L and the primary bay a volume of 643 L. The previously mentioned flight avionics bay is located between the two payload bays. IAI says the Heron can carry up to 1,036 lb. (470 kg) of payload.
Heron payloads include:
The IAI M19 electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera gimbal. The M19 has an integrated inertial navigation system (INS) and laser rangefinder, and can slew at up to 100-deg/sec.
The IAI MOSP3000-HD EO/IR gimbal, which has similar capabilities to the M19 but at a lower weight and size.
The ELM-2055 synthetic aperture radar (SAR), which also has a ground moving-target indication (GMTI) capability and a GMTI track-while-scan capability.
Communications intelligence (COMINT) equipment such as HF, VHF and UHF direction-finding antennas. This includes IAI ELTA’s ELK-7065 HF direction-finding and 3D geolocation system and the ELK-7071 interferometric direction-finding system, which covers the 20 MHz to 3 GHz range.
Global system for mobile communications (GSM) COMINT equipment allowing for intercept of cellular phone communications.
Electronic support measures and electronic intelligence equipment including the ELTA ELL-8385, an ESM system covering the 0.5 to 18 GHz band. The system is capable of automatically identifying detected emitters.
The ELTA ELM-2022U Maritime Patrol Radar (MPR), an X-band surface search radar also capable of SAR and GMTI operation. It also has an integrated identification friend-or-foe (IFF) and automatic identification system (AIS) capability.
The ELTA ELL-8265 radar warning and locating system. It geolocates emitters and displays them to operators in the ground control station.
This list omits variants that have yet to receive concrete interest from military operators.
Heron Mk. I
The Mk. I is the original variant of the Heron as described in the “Features” section. It is usually described simply as the “Heron,” or as the “Heron 1.” It is also called “Machatz 1.”
Heron TP (Eitan)
The Heron TP is a derivative of the Heron that first flew in 2004. It can operate at altitudes up to 50,000 ft. (15,240 m). To achieve this, it carries a PT6A-67A turboprop engine and is much larger than the other Heron variants, with an 85.3-ft. (26-m) wingspan. The PT6A supplies 1,200 hp (895 kW) of power at takeoff to the Heron TP. All of the Heron TP’s flight avionics are triple redundant, and the drone has an endurance in excess of 70 hr.
While some sources suggest the Heron TP has a nascent weapons capability, IAI pointedly avoids mentioning an armed configuration for the system in official media and press releases. Nevertheless, Germany’s Heron TP acquisition originally was intended to include a strike capability, which was explicitly mentioned by Airbus in its 2018 press release on the contract award. [See the Germany entry under the “Production and Delivery History” section for more details].
Harfang is the French version of the Heron Mk. I. Control of the Harfang can be handed off between two different GCS in flight and can transmit live full-motion video directly to ground troops via the manpack ROVER 3 – ROVER 6 radio terminals.
Heron Mk. II
The Heron Mk. II carries a Rotax 915 iS engine in place of the Rotax 914 used on the base Heron. This new engine supplies 141 hp (105.1 kW) at takeoff and 135 hp (100.7 kW) in continuous operation. The Mk. II was introduced at the Singapore Airshow in February 2020. To compensate for the enhanced engine, its forward fuselage is slightly enlarged. The fuselage modifications also include structural strengthening to accommodate heavier payloads including sonobuoys and magnetic anomaly detectors for antisubmarine warfare duties.
On Jan. 25, 2021, IAI announced that it had secured an unnamed launch customer for the Heron Mk. II. This customer, located in central Asia, would buy one system outright and lease another for an unspecified length of time.
Long Runner is a command-and-control capability developed for the Heron family. Long Runner is intended to enhance the range and flexibility of the Heron by allowing it to automatically land on austere runways and take off again shortly after receiving additional fuel. Long Runner-equipped Herons can be relaunched remotely, by the original GCS, with no input from the ground crew at the secondary airfield. The Long Runner capability was first demonstrated in May 2017.
TMA 6000 Datalink
Since at least July 2015, IAI has in cooperation with Thales worked to integrate a new radiofrequency (RF) datalink system aboard the Heron family. This datalink, the TMA 6000, is NATO STANAG 7085 compliant.
STANAG 7085 is the NATO standard for a datalink waveform to transmit full-motion video and images from an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) asset such as Heron to ground stations. The TMA 6000 itself has a throughput of up to 137 Mb/s.
Production and Delivery History
The Heron is produced by IAI’s Malat division, which is responsible for the company’s UAV business. Over 160 Herons have been produced for military customers.
-Sterling Richmond, email@example.com