Austrian drones fly high, over Ukraine and beyond

In the middle of the Austrian countryside, a few sleek, high-tech drones sit in a bright production hall, ready for missions over Ukraine, the Mediterranean or the Middle East.

AFP| Updated: Oct 26, 2014, 10:48 AM IST

Wiener Neustadt: In the middle of the Austrian countryside, a few sleek, high-tech drones sit in a bright production hall, ready for missions over Ukraine, the Mediterranean or the Middle East.

Schiebel, a small company originally specialised in landmine detection, has been manufacturing Camcopters -- a 3.5-metre (11.5-foot) long mini-helicopter equipped with cameras, radars and other sensors -- for close to 10 years.

But it has gained prominence with a new mission in Ukraine, where the Camcopter will assist observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor a ceasefire with pro-Russian rebels.

Before this, there were surveillance missions at the Winter Olympics in Sochi and the G20 summit in Seoul -- a surprising feat perhaps for a company from a small alpine country not usually known for high-tech defence firms.

"Schiebel is actually the leading unmanned VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) supplier at present," according to Oliver Shorvon of London-based IHS Jane`s Aerospace and Defence Consulting.

Costing a few million euros, with over eight hours` endurance and weighing a mere 200 kilogrammes (440 pounds), the Camcopter -- which Schiebel insists is only for observation and not armed -- managed to impose itself over a dozen other drones, even those produced by top defence companies like Sweden`s SAAB and Airbus.

"It`s a proven design. It`s relatively affordable as well... and because it`s been in use for the last 10 years, they`ve ironed out a lot of the operational issues," Shorvon told AFP.

With unique technology allowing it to land on ships at sea -- a tricky task given the strong winds and movement of the waves -- the Camcopter has become a prime choice for missions with the Italian navy to locate refugee boats crossing the Mediterranean from northern Africa.

The company`s clients range from the United Arab Emirates to South Korea and the United States. The French navy also used the Camcopter to combat illegal fishing and piracy, and even former Libyan dictator Moamer Khadafi reportedly bought a few, kicking up a controversy in Austria in 2011.With the OSCE mission, Schiebel has finally made it into the spotlight.

Guided by a specially trained UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) pilot and a camera operator, and equipped with night cameras and heat sensors, the Camcopters -- four drones are reportedly expected in Ukraine -- will be able to track group movements and vehicle convoys, even zooming in on car plates.

"This technology will allow the OSCE to monitor larger areas and to gather real-time information even in an insecure environment," the organisation said after selecting Schiebel in an open call for tender over the summer.

In practice, this means that "if there`s an artillery attack on a hospital, the OSCE will have the possibility very quickly to send the helicopter within a radius of 200 km (125 miles) to assess `yes, there was shelling here, it was not significant` or `the main building was hit, people were hurt`," Schiebel CEO Hannes Hecher told AFP.

“The OSCE will have this information immediately. And it will be documented, it won`t be hearsay anymore but facts," he added, referring to the often conflicting reports provided by rival groups in the region. Schiebel`s foray into drones was almost accidental, when the company`s owner sought a system to detect mines from the air and started developing the Camcopter -- literally, "camera" and "helicopter" -- in the 1990s.

The Camcopter S-100 went on the market in 2005. Since then Schiebel has sold around 200.

But the uneasiness of politicians and civilians, more familiar with military UAVs used in Pakistan or Afghanistan and worried about their privacy, is understandable, said Hecher.

With the spotlight afforded by the OSCE mission, Schiebel hopes to show what else can be done with drone technology.

More than border patrols and security monitoring, it wants to expand into civilian sectors: helping farmers know when and where to irrigate their fields, or assisting fire fighters in putting out blazes.

"There`s a big civilian free market there that is ready to pay for these services," said Hecher.