TrendGlobal UAV sales boom, but South Africa's UAV sector flounders

Published 27 March 2009

South Africa was among the world’s leaders in designing and manufacturing UAVs; UAVs are the most dynamic segment growth sector in the global aerospace industry; South Africa could have benefited from the growing interest in UAVs, lack of investment in R&D and in finished products may cause South Africa to abdicate the UAV lead it once held

UAVs are hot — not only above the battlefield, but as a business. Engineering News, for example, has published a series of stories on South African UAV programs, projects, and proposals. These have covered the products and projects of Advanced Technologies & Engineering (ATE), Denel Dynamics, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The reason for the magazine coverage of South Africa is that South Africa has been a world leader in UAVs, and UAVs are becoming very important, both technologically and as a business sector, within the aerospace industry.

Keith Campbell writes that U.S. aerospace and defense market analysis company Teal Group recently forecast that the global UAV market will be worth more than $62-billion over the next ten years. The report states that UAVs are the most dynamic segment growth sector in the global aerospace industry. Currently, total world expenditure on UAVs amounts to $4.4 billion a year, and this should reach an annual figure of $8.7 billion after ten years. In addition, billions of dollars more is being, and will be, spent on payloads for UAVs.

During the U.S. FY2009, worldwide expenditure on UAV payloads exceeded $2 billion, and Teal expects this spending to rise to $5 billion in U.S. FY2018. These payloads include command, control, communications, computer and intelligence systems; electro-optical/infrared sensors; electronic warfare systems; signals intelligence systems; chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear sensors; and synthetic aperture radars.

Respected British aerospace journal Flight International currently lists 59 companies worldwide which manufacture UAVs, including ATE and Denel (the CSIR is not a UAV manufacturer; it only produces a handful or less of each of its designs, and they are all for research purposes, not for series production).

Campbell correctly notes that UAVs are big business. They are also cutting-edge technology, especially with regard to autonomous control systems, both hardware and software. At the very top end, both the United States and the United Kingdom are known to be working on tailless blended wing body (BWB) stealth UAVs, which also involve leading-edge airframe and materials technology, design, and manufacture.

UAVs are also aircraft that South Africa has the financial resources and technological capability to totally design and manufacture on its own. South Africa has successfully exported UAVs. There is a problem, though: While five years ago one could have confidently asserted that South Africa was a world-leader in UAVs, along with the United States and Israel, today the country is grave danger of losing that status. Huge amounts