Qatar backing new 'eye in the sky'
Protecting oil and gas installations, as well as the many international events hosted by Qatar, are the main proposed roles for a purpose-designed aircraft now being developed in Germany. Alan Dron reports.
Standing unobtrusively outside the exhibition halls at this year’s ILA Berlin air show was a grey, propeller-driven light aircraft unfamiliar to most of the visitors thronging the area.
With a prominent belly fairing, obviously designed for some type of radar, positioned aft of an electro-optical turret, it drew considerable attention.
The aircraft was the Q01 intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform being designed by German company, Reiner Stemme Utility Air Systems, with Qatari funding.
A clean-sheet design developed in 18 months and poised to receive a production contract by the end of this year, it could be flying in the skies over the small Gulf nation by the end of 2017.
The man behind the aircraft is Brigadier General Khalid Al Kuwari, commander of the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Centre in Doha.
“It’s an idea I suggested to the Qatari Armed Forces,” said Al Kuwari. “Rather than going through the system and purchasing whatever the market has for ISR, we decided to develop an aircraft from scratch.”
The reason for adopting this route, he said, was that virtually all aircraft today in the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) ISR category are modified from existing aircraft: “Those are not really ISR aircraft, they’re just a platform. This is the first design built and evaluated from scratch for the ISR mission.
“The Qatar Armed Forces agreed with my idea, accepted the challenge and risk, and are funding the programme.”
Al Kuwari chose Reiner Stemme as developer “because I wanted to build an aircraft with glider-like performance, a stable aircraft with long duration”. The German company is known for designing a series of gliders and motor-gliders.
The composite-airframe Q01, which flew for the first time in November 2015, has a high-aspect, laminar-flow wing mounted atop the fuselage with a retractable tricycle undercarriage capable of operating from unmade runways. It has an empty weight of around 1,700kg, with a maximum take-off weight of 2,750kg.
Operating costs are designed to be low – around $500 per flight hour – and the aim is to keep the design simple so that high school diploma-level personnel can maintain the aircraft.
The aircraft is powered by a Technify Motors CD-300 diesel with a constant-speed MT-Propeller unit. It will have two crew – typically a pilot and a systems operator – and will carry a variety of sensors.
At Berlin, it had an under-fuselage sensor ball, representative of an L-3 Wescam electro-optical/infrared unit, together with its under-fuselage fairing, capable of carrying a ground surveillance radar.
It will have a duration of up to 48 hours at altitudes of up to 30,000ft (9,150m) and, significantly, will be capable of operating in manned or unmanned configurations.
The production variant of the aircraft is intended to have a rest area for crew immediately behind the cockpit.
“As you know, Qatar has most of its wealth offshore and you require a 24-hour ‘eye in the sky’,” said Al Kuwari. Overland surveillance is also intended as a role for the aircraft: “Nearly every week we have a sporting or political or economic conference in Qatar. It’s a huge responsibility for a small state to undertake this sort of security.”
He foresees the aircraft also undertaking pipeline and border surveillance duties, as well as playing a part in future coalition roles. Civilian crisis management roles, for example in the aftermath of natural disasters, are also possible missions.
“Prototype A” – the aircraft shown at ILA – “was just to prove the concept. Prototype B is the pre-production platform that will also be used for European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certification and we expect that to be ready by the end of this year. Hopefully, by the end of this year, we will be ready to sign a contract with the Qatari Armed Forces for 17 aircraft.”
Delivery of the first aircraft would take place about a year after contract signing.