State arms company Denel's unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) division has developed a new and improved version of its Seeker II tactical robotic reconnaissance plane.
Denel UAV business development manager Burt van Staade says "the design is completed and the Seeker 400 is now in development phase".
The flying computer is 40% larger than the second-generation Seeker II, adds Van Staade. He says the upgraded flying computer will enjoy greater endurance and longer range than its predecessors, which could fly for 10 hours at ranges of up to 250km in radius.
Van Staade adds that the Seeker 400 will also be able to carry a larger 100kg payload, double the existing capability.
Denel was an early global leader in UAV technology and the SA Air Force was one of the first in the world to deploy processor-piloted planes in the 1980s. SA's Civil Aviation Authority was also the first to grant UAVs permission, in certain circumstances, to fly in "controlled" airspace, meaning airspace controlled by the Air Traffic Navigation Service.
The original Seeker was deployed in SA's skies during the 1994 all-race elections and was credited with helping keep the peace below, especially in townships in the then-volatile East Rand.
Van Staade also reveals that Denel recently sold a Seeker II system to an undisclosed client for a classified amount.
He would not be drawn on the location of the buyer, or provide any other details. Known sales include one or more systems to Algeria.
A Seeker system consists of between four and six aircraft, a containerised computerised mission control unit, along with a tracking and communication unit that includes a digital datalink, as well as an aircraft payload, typically a thermal imaging camera and a high-resolution video camera.
The high cost of manned aircraft, the danger to aircrew from ground fire, as well as the boredom associated with the long flying times required for persistent surveillance, have pushed UAVs to the fore in battle zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine.
SA is also cashing in on the trend with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research identifying unmanned vehicle technology as a new research area.
Meanwhile, Denel Dynamics CEO Jan Wessels says the merger of Denel UAV and Advanced Technologies and Engineering (ATE), a private sector UAV manufacturer, is "in the regulatory approval phase".
The merged entity will be a public-private joint venture in which Denel will hold a 60% stake. Wessels says ATE and Denel UAV have a complementary product range and the new entity will market and build both.