Miniaturisation and backroom hi-tech will be put to the test in Cape Town, in September, when Midrand-based defence company Advanced Technology & Engineering (ATE) debuts Kiwit.
The diminutive unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), says the company, "requires no piloting skills, not even those of a model aircraft enthusiast".
Developed with the Special Forces in mind, Kiwit will allow soldiers with a modest schooling in science and maths to operate a sophisticated airplane using intuitive mission-planning coupled with waypoint-based navigation.
The ground control station (GCS) - a rugged laptop - uses a digital map display for flight planning and control. The Kiwit is hand-launched and lands automatically upon return. A mock-up of the craft was on display at the Africa Aerospace & Defence 2006 show.
ATE external affairs director Lorris Duncker says he hopes to see the real thing fly over the show later this year, while beaming down real-time video footage using an onboard 8MP video-camera with a zoom function. The operator can control the camera from the ground and make video clips, as well as take still pictures.
The electrically-powered Kiwit weighs 3kg (15kg including the GCS), and can fly for an hour at a speed of 50km/h. It has a radius of action of 5km. The aircraft is made from composite material and breaks down into several sections (fuselage sections, wings, tail and payload) for transport. It takes five minutes to assemble.
Should the data link between the aircraft and GCS break down, the Kiwit automatically returns to its launch point, or another designated point. It will also do so if its battery power begins to fail. When it is necessary to change the flight path, even during flight, the operator makes the adjustment on the laptop and the Kiwit flies itself to where the new object of interest is, range and power supply permitting.
Robotic technology and machine intelligence, as represented by Kiwit, are new area of studies that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research is pursuing.
University of Pretoria professor and vehicle dynamics specialist Schalk Els is at the state institution's mobile intelligence autonomous systems on a three-month sabbatical to help develop autonomous ground vehicles that navigate and drive entirely without human control.
While Els focuses on ground vehicles, ATE focuses on flying variants.
In addition to the Kiwit, which is in prototype phase, ATE has delivered a Vulture UAV system to the SA Army's artillery corps for fire control.
The Vulture system consists of two Vulture UAVs controlled from a containerised GCS. As is the case with Kiwit, the system is automated and relies on software-driven processors rather than pilots to launch, fly and land the aircraft.
It is understood three more systems are being built for the SA Artillery, while a fourth is being exported to China, where it may be built under licence.
ATE will also display a mock-up of a larger version of Vulture developed for battlefield surveillance. The SA Army's Intelligence Corps is running a project called "Cytoon" that includes a requirement for a hi-tech UAV optimised for low-tech crew.