While Africa's backyard space program has yet to get off the ground, the continent's first (arguably) homegrown aircraft has already taken flight. Throughout the continent, these ultralight two-seaters could soon fill the skies where long-range surveillance UAVs are too expensive to fly.
Precious few governments in Africa can afford the state-of-the art Predator UAVs that, say, the US Border Patrol employs, but that's where the Advanced High Performance Reconnaissance and Surveillance Aircraft (AHRLAC) comes in. It's the "first ever aircraft to be fully designed and developed in Africa," according to its manufacturer, South Africa's Aerosud, and is built to fulfil a number of the same roles that surveillance drones now perform—but, you know, with a two man crew.
The AHRLAC measures 34 feet long and 13 feet tall with a 40 foot wingspan. A single, 950 HP Pratt & Whitney push prop generates enough thrust to lift the 1,760 pound aircraft as high as 31,000 feet for as long as 7.5 hours. Its rear push prop allows the plane to maintain a pokey cruising speed without stalling out, which is essential in surveillance missions. It also lacks the endurance of a Predator, but is still plenty long to fill the bladders of its two pilots. Luckily, the plane's short 1,800 foot takeoff requirement makes it ideal for quick pit stops in the brush.
Competing with commercially available drones demands the AHRLAC be flexible with its load outs for both civilian and military operations. As such, the AHRLAC will be capable of carrying everything from radar and long-range optical sensors to electronic warfare suites and anti-tank missiles.
Dr Paul Potgieter, CEO AHRLAC Holdings said in a press release:
Every single part of the aircraft was pre-designed on a computer which allowed it to have a jigless construction. This means that every part fits together, much like a Meccano set, which saves vast amounts of money and time – especially when exporting globally. The jigless manufacture was made possible by parts being pre-drilled and machine made, allowing for accuracy, reduced need for hand skills and therefore less time to build. We have made all the tools for production for all sheet metal pressings and composite parts so it enables us to hit production much quicker than other aircraft.
A quarter scale prototype racked up more than 80 hours of flight time in 2012 and the first full size prototype made its maiden flight late last year. Should the aircraft's certification flights go smoothly, they could enter commercial production before the end of the decade. [AHRLAC - African Defence - PopSci]