Orion Revealed

Piotr Butowski provides details of a series of new Russian unmanned air vehicles unveiled at MAKS 2017

This year’s MAKS air show at Zhukovsky was notable for new manned aircraft types but also some unmanned types. Kronshtadt Technologies showed its long-awaited Orion, produced for the Russian Ministry of Defence under a research and development programme dubbed Inokhodets, or Ambler. Two Orion air vehicles were at Zhukovsky. A military version loaded with a full mission system and weapon payload was on display in a pavilion not accessible to the public and visited on the first day of the show by Russian President Vladimir Putin. A composite fuselage, half a wing and half of the empennage of the Orion E export version without any payloads were on public display.

A tender covering research and development of an air vehicle was issued on October 14, 2011 to meet the requirements of a programme dubbed BAK SD (Bespilotnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Sredniei Dalnosti or Medium Range Unmanned Aviation Project). Transas, later re-organised into Kronshtadt Technologies, of St Petersburg won the competition with its Orion or izdeliye 90 (product 90); rival designs were provided by Tupolev and Vega.

Computer-generated images of the Orion E export version, configured with a suite of cameras (top) or a surveillance radar with an external radar-transparent radome.
Kronshtadt Technologies
Moscow-based NPK SPP produces electrooptical sensors including the MOES which is one of a range of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads available for the Orion UAV.
Piotr Butowski

Configuration, sensors and weapons

Orion is a similar design to the American MQ-1 Predator produced by General Atomics. The Russian air vehicle features a V-tail and is powered by a single 86kW (115hp) PD-115T engine with a two-blade, 1.9m (6ft 3in) diameter, AV-115 push propeller manufactured by Aerosila; a supercharged version of the Rotax 914 modified with a turbocharger by Rybinsk Luch to increase the flight altitude. Series production air vehicles will be powered by a new Russia-made APD-110 engine under development by Agat in cooperation with the TsIAM scientific engine institute. The Orion has retractable undercarriage comprising a nose wheel and landing gear.

Two bays, housed in the lower fuselage, carry mission equipment. A small forward bay can house a typical payload like a MOES electro-optical sensor manufactured by Moscow-based NPK SPP with use of an Argos platform supplied by South African Airbus DS Optronics. The 410mm (16-inch) diameter MOES turret houses a thermal imaging camera with a zoom lens, two electro-optical cameras (wide-angle and zoom), a laser rangefinder and a laser target designator, and weighs 56kg (123lb). The sensor suite can detect, automatically track and designate targets for guided weapons.

A large central bay can house a suite of digital cameras or a surveillance radar with an external radar-transparent radome. Orion’s radar system is made by Moscowbased Phazotron-NIIR. An alternate mission system payload includes radio and signal intelligence systems carried in both bays and used for detecting and locating enemy air defence systems.

Kronshtadt representatives refused to answer any questions about the armed version of the Orion, but did acknowledge that such a version may be developed. Other sources shed light on the military version; Tactical Missile Corporation (KTRV) is currently developing weapons for new Russian UAVs, including the Orion. One type of weapon already under test is a small guided bomb fitted with wings; an anti-tank missile is also in development. The Orion has six weapon pylons, two under the fuselage centreline and two under each wing.

Both Kronshtadt Technologies’ Orion unmanned air vehicles are conducting flight testing from the company’s own facility at a former military airfield in Protasovo near Ryazan. Kronshtadt Technologies

ORION-E CHARACTERISTICS

Wingspan: 16m (52ft 6in)

Length: 8m (26ft 3in)

Take-off weight: 1,000kg (2,205lb)

Mission equipment weight, standard: 60kg (132lb)

Mission equipment weight, maximum: 200kg (441lb)

Speed: 65-108kts (120-200km/h)

Ceiling: 24,600ft (7,500m)

Endurance, with standard equipment: 24 hours

Communication range, direct: 250km (135nm)

Communication range, with relay UAV: 300km (162nm)

Orion’s designer, Nikolai Dolzhenkov said when work started there was no single device or system ready to use on either the ground station or the air vehicle. He added: “Nevertheless, despite high risk, we managed to develop several key technologies which we could not buy abroad.”

Such technologies were non-existent in Russia five years ago. Among them, Dolzhenkov mentioned design and production methods of lightly loaded composite structural components used on the air vehicle. He said: “We have mastered the technology required for series production of the airframe made entirely of carbon fibre composites by a method known as vacuum infusion. The skin and the airframe’s entire load-bearing structure is made of composites.”

Kronshtadt Technologies expects to have built a 5-tonne UAV called Orion 2 within the next three years, followed by the larger vertical take-off Fregat UAV (right) within ten years.
Piotr Butowski

Another new solution mentioned by Dolzhenkov is an electro-impulse de-icing system for thin carbon fibre structures, which does not involve heating. He added: “We have made such a system, which means we can use our drone in a much broader geographical range, and in cold regions. Results of the flight tests show we have developed a vehicle capable of competing not only with current, but also future air vehicles in this class.”

Testing

Orion air vehicles are currently being flight tested at Kronshtadt’s own flight test facility established at a former military airfield in Protasovo near Ryazan, 180km (290 miles) south of Moscow. Since the Orion completed its maiden flight from Protasovo on October 15 last year, the facility has reportedly become very active. Prior to that, the air vehicle completed its first series of tests at Zhukovsky, lifting off the runway for a moment in July 2016. Orion flew to an altitude of 18,700ft (5,700m) during a test flight in May 2017 and started weapon launches in June.

Company representatives remained tightlipped about the number of air vehicles built, but underlined the number was “not just one or two”. The number seems likely to be between four and six, and the likelihood of the Orion system soon being deployed to Syria for testing in combat conditions should not be ruled out.

Presenting the Orion at MAKS 2017, Kronshtadt Group’s CEO Armen Isaakyan said the project is ready for series production. He also announced an agreement signed with Rosoboronexport for marketing Orion overseas, saying: “We hope to win a significant portion of the world’s heavy UAV market.”

Likely regions for export include Russia’s traditional customers in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa.

Beyond Orion

Armen Isaakyan said that work on the Orion commenced in 2011 and currently represents the company’s strategic direction. He added: “We are focused on unmanned systems and will invest in their continued development”. Last year, Kronshtadt became part of an industry-financial group called AFK Sistema. The new owners invested considerable resources and the pace of work on further projects has accelerated significantly.

According to Nikolai Dolzhenkov, the experience gathered during development work on the Orion and the technologies mastered will enable the company to undertake development of much larger UAVs for a broader range of missions. “Our objective is to become a market leader in large UAVs,” he said.

Within the next three years, Orion 2, a UAV with a 5,000kg take-off weight will follow, and within ten years the company expects to have developed an even larger vertical take-off UAV called the Fregat. The solution to this concept is implementing two high-load rotating propfans, and if achieved, will give the air vehicle a unique capability, but also presents the project’s greatest technical challenge.

Russia’s Ministry of Defence has already ordered the 5,000kg class Altair UAV from OKB Simonov of Kazan. The Altair programme has been in flight test since July 2016 and is reportedly facing difficulties. Orion 2 is destined to be Kronshtadt’s challenger to the Altair.