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Posted 13 June 2017 · Add Comment

The Islamic Republic of Iran is rarely mentioned in lists of cutting-edge technology but, when it comes to drones, the country punches well above its technological weight, as Mohammad Razazzan reports.

While Iran has struggled with putting together the systems needed to deploy a tactical attack drone, it has done a good job with affordable, reliable engines and airframes.
Iran has one of the oldest drone development programmes in the world. It began in the early 1980s during its war against Iraq. Over the years, and in spite of crippling international sanctions, it has developed a colourful ecosystem of military unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).
Though some of Iran’s past drones have been more credible than others, it’s hard not to be impressed by the quantity and diversity of unmanned aircraft produced over the past 30 years.
The Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) appeared to mark a milestone in its UAV production when it rolled out the Shahed-129 in late 2012. Up until then, its drone fleet mostly included smaller aircraft with short range and endurance. IRGC minders claimed – but experts have been unable to independently verify – that the larger Shahed can fly for 24 hours straight.
Making drones that can fire guided missiles appears to be a more difficult feat for Iran’s aviation industry. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian forces equipped early versions of the Mohajer UAV with RPG-7s rocket-propelled grenades. More recently, Iran claimed that its turbojet-powered Karrar drone could drop bombs as well as fire a type of homebrew guided missile called the Sadid.
Iran shows no sign of slowing down its drone development programme, which hit an obsessive tempo after it captured a US Sentinel stealth surveillance drone in 2011.
The country has also had success in exporting its drones to proxies, such as Hezbollah, where they mostly play the same intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) role.
Hezbollah has experimented with suicide drones (not quite the same thing as Cruise missiles, but not that far off), and Israel can probably anticipate a more complex aerial environment in the next Lebanon conflict.
Iran has used drones extensively in Syria and Iraq, supplying both countries’ governments with reconnaissance data and identifying targets for manned airstrikes. Iranian drones have been spotted flying over Syrian battle zones since the early days of the Syrian civil war. Altogether, Iran probably has more operational experience with drones than any country other than Israel or the United States.
In 2015, Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, announced that his country had collaborated with Iran to develop and produce a fleet of surveillance drones to patrol the country’s borders. The Arpia-001 drones, which are based on Iran’s Mohajer series, will be used to seek out drug smugglers.
Also, Iranian officials have told the media that Russia wants to import the technology of one of the Iranian-made drones. The official refused to unveil more details. Iran earlier gave Russia a copy of ScanEagle – a US spy drone – as proof that its elite forces have reverse-engineered and mass produced the American UAV.
The first operational Iranian drone was the Ababil, which first saw service in 1986 during operations against Iraq.
The Ababil is still in production today. Isfahan’s HESA produces several UAV types, among them the Ababil-1 and its scaled-down AM-79 derivative for operator training.
The Ababil-1 weighs a little less than 440lbs. It can loiter for two hours at speeds up to 160 knots and a can operate at altitudes of up to 16,500 feet. A solid-fuel booster assists take-off from a rail-type platform. The main wing unfolds and the vehicles assume a ‘canarded’ aerodynamic configuration. A rear-mounted piston engine driving a pusher propeller powers the vehicle during cruise and the design features optical sensors in the fuselage nose.
The Ababil-1 follows a flight path loaded into its computer before take-off, but the operator can assume control or reprogram waypoints during flight. The operator uses a Panasonic portable computer and joystick-style device for manual trajectory control – all of which he or she can carry in a normal-sized suitcase.
While HESA’s designs consist largely of aluminium alloys, Tehran-based Qods Aviation Industries prefers composites.
The Mohajer, a medium-size surveillance drone, followed soon after the Ababil and also saw service in the Iran-Iraq war. Some versions were reportedly equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, making the Mohajer one of the first weaponised drones.
The 118in Mohajer-2, featuring a 150in wingspan, weighs just 187lbs. Its twin-boom tail and a pusher propeller give it a distinctive look. The UAV’s 25hp piston engine provides for 90 minutes of powered flight at a maximum speed of 108 knots and altitudes of up to 9,900 feet. In practice, operational range falls to less than 27nm (to maintain a radio link with the truck-based control post) if the operator needs real-time video imagery.
Equipped with a flight control system and autopilot, the Mohajer-2 normally follows a preloaded flight path with up to 99 waypoints, using a GPS receiver for navigation. The vehicle lasts for some 20 to 30 flights.
The Mohajer 4, the fourth iteration of the drone, remains in use today. During the Israel-Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006, Israeli forces shot down a Hezbollah-operated surveillance drone, the Mirsad-1, which is believed to be derived from the Mohajer.
The Karrar (‘striker’) is the latest in a growing line of indigenous Iranian drone offerings. It was developed as an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), becoming the first long-endurance, combat-capable Iranian drone of note.
Externally, the vehicle resembles a World War II-era German V-1 terror rocket and US target drone designs of the 1970s. It makes use of a basic aerodynamic shape, which is stabilised by straight wing appendages.
The Karrar is a turbojet-propelled drone capable of carrying a single bomb. Iran claims that it has a range of about 600 miles.
With the Shahed 129, Iran became a pretender to the drone major leagues. Capable of carrying out 24-hour surveillance and strike missions, the Shahed 129 reportedly shares many of the capabilities of the US Predator and Reaper drones.
The HESA Shahed 129 series is a dual-role platform capable of reconnaissance work and attack. It was developed by the Shahed Aviation Industries Research Center of Iran, with production handled by HESA.
It appeared during September 2012, remains in active production and may have been procured by the Syrian Government for its long-running civil war campaign begun in 2011. The Shahed 129 was debuted in mid-2012.
One of Iran’s most impressive drones is also one of its only non-military versions. Technology developer RTS Labs has created the Pars lifesaver drone.
The Pars carries a stack of flotation devices, which it drops over people in emergency situations in the water.
The Ra’ad-85 is a hybrid between a drone and a precision-guided bomb. Technically, it is a UAV that is packed with explosives. The pilot can steer the Ra’ad, kamikaze style, into moving targets.
Upon its unveiling, the Ra’ad garnered widespread ridicule, as the demonstration model appeared to be held together with brown duct tape.
Iran Aviation Industries Organization (IAIO) manufactures Fotros. The vehicle is said to exhibit an operational endurance of some 30 hours with a range out to 2,000km. A service ceiling of 25,000 feet is reported. Of course, due to Iranian secrecy, these values can be considered suspect until formally proven.
The Fotros can carry missiles for air-to-ground attacks. In theory, this makes it roughly equivalent to the drones that the US uses for targeted killing operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

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