Flying machines originally developed for the military to spy and collect intelligence information without risks to pilots in enemy airspace, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have since acquired new uses in environmental monitoring, agriculture and public safety, for example. These stealth airplanes have no pilot and are commanded by a ground-based remote control station basically consisting of a laptop computer and a joystick linked to a radio system, sensors, video cameras and software that indicates the route, altitude and time of landing. They can fly many miles and return to base by themselves or be controlled in real time by a virtual pilot manning the base station. The recent evolution of these aircraft has been in the development of new microelectronics and the miniaturization of existing aviation equipment. In Brazil, the use of such aircraft in the military began in the 90’s, and grew over the next decade with the establishment of several companies producing small UAVs. In addition to domestic production, the Brazilian Air Force, with two aircraft at the air base in Santa Maria (Rio Grande do Sul) and the Federal Police, also with two aircraft, are using large UAVs that were purchased from Israeli companies in 2010. These UAVs are being used for training purposes in the Air Force and for use in monitoring border areas in the region of Foz do Iguaçu to combat smuggling and trafficking in drugs and arms.
The growing importance of unmanned aircraft in Brazil can be measured by the intensive merger and partnership activity seen earlier this year. The Santos Lab, a private enterprise located in Rio de Janeiro, is a producer of these aircraft and has already sold 36 units to the Brazilian Navy and established a working partnership with Embraer Defense, the military arm of the aviation giant in São Jose dos Campos, in São Paulo State. Another company in São Jose, known as Flight Solutions, which has delivered three new prototypes to the Brazilian army for testing in 2010, is part of the Synergy Defense Group, a company created recently by the group which owns Avianca airlines. Two other companies, AGX, of São Carlos and Xmobots of São Paulo, which are producing UAVs for civilian use only, were united in a strategic merger aimed at strengthening the civilian market. Another Brazilian company, Avibras, participated in the development of a new navigation and control system for UAVs in a partnership with the Institute of Aeronautics and Space (IAE) of the Department of Aerospace Science and Technology (DCTA), also in located São Jose dos Campos, is now producing a larger unmanned aircraft for military use which should make its first test flight in 2011.
The movement by Brazilian companies of unmanned aerial vehicles reflects the interest they have gained in the international market. More than 30 nations are now developing such aircraft. The United States is the leader in this area, with 35 private companies, almost all of them producing UAVs for their own armed forces. The production so-called drones, another name for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they are known worldwide, showed the greatest growth of all sectors in the global aerospace industry over the past decade. According to the study World unmanned aerial vehicle systems, market profile and forecast 2011, presented in February by the U.S. consultancy known as Teal Group, which specializes in the areas of aerospace and defense, the world market this year should reach $5.9 billion in research, development and sales of unmanned aircraft. The United States Department of Defense estimates the amount spent on these small planes this year to be about $3.1 billion. The two largest UAVs were developed in North America and are currently being used in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are the Global Hawk, with a wingspan of 39 meters (m), larger than a Boeing 737, and the smaller Predator drone, which is capable of carrying air to ground missiles. The same study predicts an annual market turnover of US$ 11.3 billion by 2020 in this area.
One initiative that can open many avenues for the UAV industry in Brazil was a sales agreement between AGX and the Environmental Police of São Paulo for three unmanned aircraft equipped with cameras to be used in monitoring in environmentally protected areas for deforestation activity, illegal fishing, riparian vegetation assessments, combating forest fires and even locating people who get lost in the woods. To properly operate these aircraft, 15 officers from the unit received special training and should start employing the devices in July.” They will use two models. The Tiriba, which is equipped with a lithium battery and can be launched from an operator’s hand, negating the need for a runway, and the Arara II, which runs on gasoline and requires a small runway for take off and landing” says Adriano Kalcelkis, director of AGX. The development of these aircraft was made possible in the beginning through financial support from the Program for Technological Innovation in Small Business (PIPE) of FAPESP, and also involved the cooperation of the Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science in the São Carlos School of Engineering at the University of São Paulo and Embrapa Agricultural Instrumentation, both based in São Carlos, and more recently the National Institute of Science and Technology Critical Embedded Systems (INCT-SEC), which brings together three research institutions and seven other entities in the country. “With the help of INCT-SEC we developed a thermal sensor capable of locating people or animals at night using body heat profiles, which is a very useful tool for the police in night searches,” says Kalcelkis. “The best thing for a technology company is to have a university at their side because the two win, including with the licensing of patents, as we have done in conjunction with the USP for the aircraft control system.” The company has two employees with doctorates, four with a Master’s degree and four graduates.
The most advanced aircraft that the company manufactures is the Tiriba, which flies at altitudes of up to 3000 meters with a maximum air speed of 110 kilometers per hour (km/h), and has range of up to 15 km from the base station and can land via a parachute when the virtual pilot takes control. Since 2006, the company has provided the services of the Arara aircraft to the agricultural industry for the purpose of obtaining aerial photographs to detect the quality of crops and identify potential pest problems over large cultivated areas.” We flew in São Paulo and Mato Grosso, over soy plantations, and in southern areas of the country, over eucalyptus and pine,” says Kalcelkis. One of the future projects of AGX, which is already under development, is the VSX model, a UAG being produced in partnership with other private companies including aviation equipment producer Aeroálcool, located in Franca in the interior of São Paulo State, and Orbisat in São Jose, which produces radar and remote sensing maps. This aircraft will operate on gasoline, fly at speeds up to 200 km/h, weigh about 220 kilograms (kg), and have the ability to make 30 hour autonomous flights, which will be especially useful for environmental monitoring purposes in the Amazon, and carry a special radar system that can map the soil beneath forested areas. Development of the VSX has been supported by a project from the Economic Subvention of Financing of Studies and Projects (FINEP) worth $1 million and should be ready in late 2012.
The company partnering with AGX, is Xmobots, which is betting on demand in the environmental market for their devices. Currently, the two groups of entrepreneurs and researchers are looking for existing technological capabilities of the two companies that may be complementary and avoid the need for new, independent development by either of them. “An example of this partnership is the work we are doing at the Jirau Hydroelectric Plant, which is being built on the Madeira River in the state of Rondônia. There we are conducting flights to take pictures and video to document deforestation in the region. Image processing is being done by AGX, which has extensive knowledge in this sector, “said Giovani Amianti, one of the partners at Xmobots, a start up company at the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology (Cietec) in São Paulo, which also received funding from PIPE in 2007.
The company developed the Apoena, a gasoline powered airplane, 2.6 m 2.6 m in length and with a 2.5 m wingspan, that is capable of flying at up to 115 km/h and up to distances of 60 km. This aircraft is used in studies for the future certification of UAVs in civilian and is being realized by the National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC). So far, there are no such systems which can be certified by the authorities that control airspace. Drones are prohibited from flying over urban areas and flights over agricultural areas or forest need to be communicated to the flight control centers in the region of the flight so they can issue notices to aircraft pilots. For the certification project of Apoena, which will serve as a model, the company has an Economic Subvention project from FINEP worth $1.7 million.
Xmobots was started by nine master’s and undergraduate students from the Polytechnical School of USP in 2004 who perceived the market opportunities for unmanned aircraft, which were still very much incipient in Brazil at that time. Today only three of the original founders of the company remain active. “Many left and decided to pursue other paths because a project like this takes time to develop,” says Amianti. By developing its own navigation control system, the company was able to initiate three other projects approved by the Aeronautical Sector Fund. The first project, a collaboration with the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) and the Military Engineering Institute (IME) in Rio de Janeiro, is to design a miniature UAV, weighing just 300 grams and capable of flying at 60 km/h, with intended applications in policing and investigation, has a budget of $1.5 million. Another project, in the amount of $1.9 million and being realized with collaborators at the University of Brasilia and the Aeronautical Technology Institute (ITA), is to construct another, slightly larger, miniature UAV weighing 3 kg, with flight speeds up to 100km/hr, and capable of four hour autonomous flights. The third project, also worth $1.9 million, is being developed with Atech in the area of public safety and is focused on miniaturizing the flight control system of Apoena.
Two other small companies producing UAVs in Brazil, Santos Lab and Flight Solutions, have very different business profiles while still acting in the same market segment of military aircraft. Santos Lab, named after the Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont, an important early pioneer in aviation, is headed by businessman Gilberto Buffara and industrial designer Gabriel Klabin, two childhood friends who played together with model airplanes on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. The differences between model aircraft and UAGs begins with the adoption of cameras and sensors, but the principal difference is that the latter is able to fly autonomously and follow a pre-established route, while the former must be piloted by a radio control device and does not carry sophisticated electronics on board. “The company started in 2004 as a game with a model plane having a four-foot wingspan. In 2006, Gabriel put cameras on a model plane and learned that the Navy was looking for companies that produce drones,” says Buffa. “Then we decided to go to Israel, where there are large companies manufacturing these types of unmanned aircraft, and we visited, for example, the two largest, IAI [Israel Aerospace Industries] and Elbit, which was helpful to us in understanding the market.”
They created their first models using technology and the help of an engineer from Israel, and a representation contract for a subsidiary of Boeing, Insitu, which specializes in the area. The two drone models purchased by the federal government of Brazil are also Israeli. The Federal Police is using IAI’s Heron model, which has a 16 m wingspan, while the Air Force is using Elbit’s model, known as the Hermes 450, which has a 10 m wingspan.
The airplanes being manufactured by Santos Lab are small in size. “We believe that there is no need to reinvent technology that already exists. Today we have two German aeronautical engineers who worked at NASA, among our total of eight employees,” says Buffara. They have sold 36 aircraft to the Navy, earned R$8 million in 2010 and are preparing to produce other UAVs for military applications through an agreement with Embraer Defesa. The principal aircraft is the Carcará, which is 50 cm long and has a 2.10 m wingspan. It is battery powered and can be launched by hand. For landing, the company developed and patented a system in which the aircraft is positioned at an angle of 45 ° and descends vertically.
In early June, the partners of Flight negotiated the participation of a new company called Synergy Defesa and made it a point to assert that the technology they developed, especially in relation to control systems, is the result of previous projects carried out in the ITA , where they were students. “Before creating the company, I, a master’s student, and my partner Benedito Maciel, a PhD student, participated, from 2001 to 2004, in a PITE [Partnership for Technological Innovation] project from FAPESP, with Embraer, to develop and identify flight stability and control systems for aircraft under the coordination of Professor Luiz Carlos Goes,” says Nei Brasil, a partner in Flight, founded in 2005 and specializing in products for military aviation, with sales of R$6 million in 2010 and a staff of 37 employees. In July 2009, the company completed the Horus 100 project, a battery powered military reconnaissance aircraft that can be launched by hand, flies up to 120 km/h, and weighs only 5.8 kg, with autonomous flight capabilities of up to one hour long. Flight also participated in the development of a navigation and control system that is being used in the Acauã, a UAV built by the Aeronautical and Space Institute (IAE) of the Department of Aerospace Science and Technology (DCTA). “The story begins in 1984 when the institution identified a need for training technicians in the operation of this type of aircraft,” says Flavio Araripe aeronautical engineer and coordinator of the Vant IAE project. The finding was due to events that occured in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon in 1982. Syria had occupied part of that country and the Israeli Air Force, with information obtained by UAVs, was able to destroy 17 Syrian antiaircraft batteries. From these events, the importance of unmanned military aircraft, became evident and led to the growth of Israel in this area. So, the DCTA decided to invest in the development of the Acauã. But several subsequent budget cuts created a situation where the project did not actually materialize until 2004, in partnership the Army and Navy technology centers, with funding from FINEP and an industrial partner known as Avibras, which is a Brazilian weapons manufacturer. 59 flights were conducted with two prototypes of the Acauã, which has a 5 m wingspan, weighs 150 kg, has two hours of battery life and a gasoline engine.
The Acauã served as an experiment for the Brazilian Air Force, which withheld the navigation system technology, and also for Avibras, which has now developed its his own UAV, known as Falcão, in partnership with the IAE during the ground and flight testing stages. “Avibras had constructed a UAV named Scorpion in the 90’s in collaboration with the University of Maryland, but after there was no commercial interest and the project was canceled,” recalls engineer Renato Tovar, coordinator of the Falcão project. He explains that this UAV, which is larger than any of the other models currently being manufactured in Brazil and more similar to the Israeli UAVS purchased by the federal government, should take its first flight later this year. “The Falcão will have an 11 m wingspan and weigh 700 kg. It will be able to fly at speeds of up to 180 km/h and will have a range of up to 2,500 km at an altitude of 5000 meters. Control is by radio or satellite communication,” says Tovar. “The aircraft is equipped with high sensitivity radar that is able to identify a car or a boat at a distance of 50 km.” The Falcão may also carry weapons and act in the border patrol missions. Part of the funding for its development comes from an Economic Subvention project of FINEP, totalling R$ 19 million, with an investment of R$8 million by the company itself.
1. A system for automatic mapping of agricultural productivity (nº 2005/04485-2); Modality Small Business Innovative Research (PIPE); Coordinator Alexandre Rafael Ferrarezi – AGX; Investment R$ 52,152.00 (FAPESP)
2. Certifiable avionics system for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for civil applications project (nº 2007/55661-0); Modality Small Business Innovative Research (PIPE); Coordinator Giovani Amianti – Xmobots; Investment R$ 56,940.84 and U.S. $16,670.37 (FAPESP)