Defence is seeking a suite of Group 1 Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to supply Australia's Pacific neighbours with. The small drones are intended to operate from the Guardian-class patrol boats provided to 13 Pacific nations and Timor-Leste through the Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP).
The planned UAV capability forms half of the new Enhanced Aerial Surveillance Program, which also includes the procurement of new surveillance aircraft for the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA).
The UAVs are intended to provide the vessel's crew with better situational awareness, increasing their efficacy during surveillance, boarding, and search and rescue (SAR) operations. In particular, they will allow crews to remotely inspect, assess and monitor vessels before approaching closer. According to Defence, this requires a minimum of 2 kilometres of range with at least 30 minutes of in-flight endurance.
To reduce cost and complexity as well as simplifying maintenance, Defence is only pursuing commercially available models that can fulfil the requirements for underway operation aboard the Guardian class vessels. These requirements include vertical take-off and landing, waterproofing, the ability to float and, ideally, the ability to take off and land from patches of calm water.
Payload options include thermal, night vision, video and still cameras as well as loudspeakers. The vehicles are also required to include a remote payload carriage and release system, as well as extension bars for all compatible accessories.
Due to the limited performance requirements, the lack of aviation fuel facilities aboard the Guardian class, and perhaps most importantly, the relatively high cost of fuel in much of Oceania the UAV are expected to be electrically powered through the use of interchangeable batteries. This is particularly important as high fuel costs have been a historic barrier for Guardian- and Pacific-class patrol boat operations.
The program has a relatively quick turnaround, with the deed of standing offer due to enter into force in April next year, following a contract award towards the end of February 2024. While the UAVs being procured through the standing offer are currently only intended for use aboard donated Guardian class patrol boats, Defence has also left the door open for future orders in support of other Pacific nations or emergent requirements.