Navies and security agencies around the world are increasingly relying on unmanned aerial vehicles for their reconnaissance and surveillance needs, thereby contributing to the development of the overall “drone” market that is expected to reach USD 14.9 billion by 2020.
Naval Today recently spoke with David Willems, the Global Business Development Director of UMS SKELDAR – a joint venture between Saab and UMS AERO, who provided an insight into the maritime vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) platform development and reflected on what the future of the industry might look like.
Mr. Willems, to start off, can you tell us more about UMS SKELDAR and how the company came to be.
UMS SKELDAR is a joint venture between Saab Group and UMS Aero which was a holding company. UMS AERO itself was a fusion of two previous companies, Unmanned Systems and Swiss UAV. The two companies came together in 2013 and joined forces with Saab Group in 2015 to become UMS SKELDAR.
It is a joint venture where UMS Group holds a 53% stake and Saab holds 47%. The company offers two types of products, fixed wing and rotary platforms. We are what you could call a fully integrated OEM which means that we develop everything from the IP links to the platforms themselves.
We also provide an extensive range of ISR services, training services and financial services related to the acquisition of our products.
UMS SKELDAR is currently pitching its SKELDAR V-200 heavy UAV in a number of tenders both in Europe and outside of Europe. The Royal Australian Navy is currently in the process of testing UAV systems for its operations, can you tell us more about it?
The testing evaluation phase started a year ago and some of our competitors have already participated. Then, a few months ago, the Royal Australian Navy issued a Request for Information where UMS SKELDAR has been participating. This is still an ongoing process at this stage which is why I cannot give much information but I can say we are among the companies participating in the tender.
If the Royal Australian Navy decided it wanted to operate an armed VTOL, how would the SKELDAR V-200 fare against armed competition, say Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout?
We are often asked that question actually and I will tell you that the aircraft is not designed to be equipped with any sort of weapons unlike the RQ-8. However, it has a payload capability of 40 kilos so one could imagine that it could be, in principle, possible to weaponize it but this is not something that we would do directly. Again, these requests come a lot and it may be possible that one day we will have a weaponized version.
You recently took part in a German Navy workshop together with your German partner ESG GmbH, exhibiting the SKELDAR V-200. Can you shed more light on your activities in Germany?
There is a lot of things going on there. Germany is certainly by far the most active country in Europe when it comes to UAV requirements these days for the Navy.
There are different programs for which we are either tendering or consulting for. Some are more in the long term, for the new class of frigates for instance, and some are more for urgent requirements.
Can you tell us more about the space requirements of a VTOL system, can it be deployed aboard German Navy corvettes?
Well, the VTOL cannot be deployed on every single ship because you need space to operate it. We recommend to have at least 10 x 10 meters of deck space to have enough clearance for security during taking off and landing.
The ship needs to be equipped with some hangaring facilities; it does not have to be very big but you have what we call the logistical footprint. Not all ships have the dedicated hangar space and we would have to coexist next to manned aircraft in some cases but yes, the SKELDAR could be deployed on those warships.
Saab being from Sweden we could not help but ask if that fact had any effect on the operations of UMS SKELDAR in Scandinavia.
Well, Scandinavia at large feels exposed to their big eastern brother and that does have a direct consequence on the defence procurement. The threat level has been raised by every single country which means that requests for surveillance equipment are also increasing. So you have got UAVs and all related equipment that is in very high demand these days.
From a Saab perspective, they provide us with a great deal of legitimacy in what we are doing. In addition, they assist us in our sales and marketing efforts.
UMS Skeldar had a UAV stationed aboard the Spanish offshore patrol vessel BAM Meteoro off the Horn of Africa. Can you tell us how did that go, what was the feedback?
This happened in 2013 when we had SKELDAR V-200 stationed aboard BAM Meteoro which was part of the Operation Atalanta mission to fight piracy. We were stationed for six months on the ship and performed missions off the ship: to fight piracy, search for illegal vessels, provide specific information on unidentified vessels or to perform intelligence gathering missions off the coast of Somalia.
The really loved it. It has been a successful mission and a learning curve for both sides. It was their first mission using UAVs ever and we had very little time to deploy with the ship. In the end, it has been good and, as a consequence, we are in renewed talks with them for future procurement programs.
Willems also gave us his thoughts on the Asian market where UMS SKELDAR delivered a fixed-wing program in Indonesia earlier this year.
South East Asia is extremely proactive when it comes to this type of equipment because you have a lot of islands, huge coastal areas to cover and they have humongous requirements in that part of the world to fight piracy, terrorism or smuggling and off course UAVs are hot commodities. We are extremely active, we already have customer there and we are active at marketing and promoting our products and we are engaged with several nations already.
When asked about what he thinks the future of the VTOL platforms will look like, Willems said:
We see a trend in the industry whereby VTOLs are going to be be increasingly used for navy operations and border control operations and surveillance at large. I think there will be a small shift to more of security-related operations, blue forces organizations that will, in terms of volume, probably become as big, if not bigger than the classic navy requirements.
The procurement cycles are not the same, it should be noted. The navy procurement cycle is measured in years while other agencies are much faster in procurement and we see a trend where with VTOL we will be very successful with those blue forces and agencies.
We asked whether UMS SKELDAR was in talks with coast guard agencies that would deploy the company’s VTOL. “It’s interesting that you are asking this now,” Willems said. “We are in the middle of something, several things I should say. I cannot discuss it at the moment but it is a hot topic even more so now with the global situation. We are involved in talks both in Europe and outside of Europe with some Coast Guard agencies.”
At the end of the interview David Willems said that UMS SKELDAR was confident with its current offering adding that the private sector is increasingly looking at heavy VTOL platforms such as the V-200. “We feel we are in the best time in the best position to capture a fair portion of the market; definitely the VTOL market,” Willems concluded.