The Orlan-10 drone is hardly an old system. Developed in the early 2010s, with entry into service in 2015, the Orlan-10 is the workhouse small drone of Russia’s military. While four years is far from a long service history for a vehicle, it’s practically two generations in the commercial drone world. Which is likely why the St. Petersburg-based Technologies of Automation and Programming (TAIP) is trying to sell the Ministry of Defense on its new Feniks drone as an Orlan alternative.
Feniks was on display at the MAKS 2019 International Aviation & Space exposition outside of Moscow, with the goal of convincing military buyers to consider the Feniks as a replacement for existing Orlan-10 drones. That’s a hard proposition in the best of times, though TAIP is promoting its drones using two key features.
“If you look at the center section carefully, you’ll see the new additional moving elements that help to control the drone if the wing-flap system fails,” Andrey Soleyev, director of UAV division, told Mil.Press at the exposition. Soleyev was describing a control system that created a sort of back-up for the ailerons and flaps on the Fenik’s wings.
Besides a redundant control system, the Feniks boast a greater payload capacity than the Orlan-10, carrying roughly six more pounds. (This is offset somewhat by the Orlan’s included ISR package, though it likely matters in terms of battlefield resupply, where every pound of ammunition or bandages matters.) A heavier capacity payload would also allow the drone to be used as an ultralight bomber.
Additionally, the Feniks has an engine designed to run on both gasoline and kerosene.
“One of the major developments in the Russian UAV industry is the ‘hybridization’ of the drone engines - to ensure either quiet operation (electric/gasoline hybrids) or variable performance levels in range (gasoline/kerosene hybrids),” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses.
That flexibility is a compelling argument for an upgrade, though the scale of the replacement is vast. Of the 2,100 or so drones in Russian service, Bendett estimates that Orlan-10s account for at least 1,000. This workhorse nature, combined with its range of 75 miles, means the Orlan-10 has been used broadly in exercises and in action in Syria and Ukraine. The Ministry of Defense has experimented with Orlan-10s carrying cell phone jammers.
“What may determine if Feniks is eventually accepted into service is the extent to which it consists of domestically produced components,” Bendett said. “We now know that its engines are domestic, but what about the rest? There is at least anecdotal evidence from Orlans down in Ukraine and Syria that they had imported components, including ISR technology. With the current MOD drive for import-substituted products, Feniks’ ‘domestication’ ― as well as potential cost ― may determine when it could be accepted into service.”
Creating a domestic drone industry can a challenge, especially in light of a global drone parts market that keeps costs low, but the widespread adoption of the Orlan-10 suggests that there is a market for similar drones, if not the Feniks itself.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.