EADS’s Barracuda UCAV swims with the fishes

Sea food is well and truly off the menu at EADS this week, following the embarrassing loss of its Barracuda unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator to an accident. The 3t air vehicle – named after a long, slender fish – returned to the sea in a so-far unexplained ditching near the end of a weekend test flight from San Javier air base in southern Spain.

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Although it can console itself with meat – and weissbier – galore in the beer halls of Munich’s Oktoberfest, this is seriously bad news for EADS, which looked to be lagging behind its European rivals in flying advanced unmanned systems even before the Barracuda mishap. Alenia Aeronautica of Italy, BAE Systems of the UK, Dassault of France and Saab of Sweden all held significant bragging rights over the manufacturer, having each flown company-funded UCAV-like demonstrators over the last couple of years: respectively the Sky-X; Raven; Petit Duc; and Filur designs.

Europe’s unmanned air vehicle sector is a congested place, with several of the continent’s big five military airframers jostling to lead collaborative demonstrations of their combined know-how. The loss of EADS’s showpiece aircraft – which was developed under a project worth around €40 million ($50 million) – confirms what we already knew: Dassault is in pole position to conduct such work, as the lead company on Europe’s French-led Neuron UCAV project. BAE also appears well placed to lead development work in the UK, which seems set to go it alone.

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Pardon the pun, but there was something a bit fishy about the Barracuda programme’s achievements to date. EADS refused to comment on the effort for many months, before releasing sketchy details of an initial flight test campaign – also conducted from San Javier – just before April’s Berlin air show, where the design was formally unveiled. Sources from rival manufacturers suggested that something had not gone to plan during this process, as the UCAV flew just once for 20min, but EADS played this down, attributing the lone sortie to “inclement weather”.

The new Barracuda campaign – which I reported on for this week’s print edition of Flight International from EADS Military Air Systems’ technology forum in Munich on 19-20 September – also sounded to be of limited ambition, with the company saying that only two or three flights were planned, to expand the air vehicle’s flight envelope through changes to its altitude and speed. The accident is believed to have happened during the first of these sorties, on 23 September, destroying EADS’s lone Barracuda, which was manufactured around two years ago.

As ever, it’s too early to speculate on what might have happened, but an EADS official said last week that windtunnel tests of the so-called Spiral 0 Barracuda proved that the design was “absolutely stable”. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada JT15D-5C turbofan engine, the air vehicle was controlled without using a joystick on the ground, but by around 10 high-level commands, such as start, go around, and land. Navigation was provided using EGNOS and GPS satellites, with the air vehicle also equipped with a laser altimeter; clever stuff all round, but equally, lots to go wrong.

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Regardless of the cause of the Barracuda’s loss, perhaps EADS should steer clear of marine life next time it decides to name one of its projects: let’s not forget that its proposed Mako advanced jet trainer (named after a stealthy species of shark) has also vanished silently into the depths over the last couple of years, following a lukewarm market response. Luckily for the company, as military operators are maybe 15 years away from fielding operational UCAVs, perhaps it has time to recover from this mishap.

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