By Thomas Withington
Saab Aerospace handed over the fuselage section of the pan-European Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle technology demonstrator during a ceremony at its Linköping site in Sweden on 25 January.
The structure will be trucked to Istres air base in southern France, where Dassault, the aircraft's lead integrator, will attach the wings and ensure that it is ready to enter ground and flight tests expected to start later this year.
Launched in 2003, the €400 million ($548 million) Neuron project involves France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The partners will develop the technologies that could outfit future generations of stealthy UCAVs developed in Europe. A single Neuron airframe is to be built, with funding provided by the respective nations.
"We are now starting the final phase of the project," says Lennart Sindahl, Saab Aerospace's head of aeronautics. Responsible for the design and manufacture of the aircraft's fuselage, the company has around 23% of the workshare on the programme.
© Saab Aerospace
Cassidian's Spanish unit is producing the wings, ground control station and integrating the aircraft's datalink, while Dassault is building the wing leading and trailing edges and the flight-control system.
Hellenic Aerospace Industry is producing the rear fuselage and tail pipe, while Alenia Aeronautica has designed the electrical system and weapons bay. Ruag is to manufacture the pantograph that will lower the UCAV's ordnance out from its weapons bay.
Assembly of the aircraft will take place over the next nine months, says Jonas Hamberg, Neuron programme manager for Saab. Flight-testing should begin at Istres in 2012 and will also be conducted in Italy and Sweden.
Saab hopes to use its Giraffe three-dimensional air defence radar to evaluate the low observable characteristics of the Neuron airframe, but Hamberg says a final decision will be taken by Sweden's Defence Materiel Administration.
Designed with stealth characteristics, the Neuron uses a composite skin built over an aluminium frame. Its Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour turbofan engine is in the centre fuselage behind an S-shaped air intake, which was concealed for the handover event.
The Neuron project is intended to prove some of the key concepts of operations for any future unmanned combat aircraft that may be procured at national or European level.
Dassault programme manager Thierry Prunier says UCAVs will be an ideal complement during combat missions also involving manned aircraft. "You can have a UCAV fly in front of the fighters to collect data on ground-to-air threats," he says, adding: "There is a future for manned fighters."
Separately, Saab expects to deliver two tactical unmanned air vehicle systems to the Swedish army this year. Each will comprise four AAI-produced Shadow 200 aircraft, plus a ground control system and a sensor source intelligence cell.
The Swedish company says it is also demonstrating its Skeldar unmanned helicopter to undisclosed potential customers in Sweden. The type could enter series production by 2012, it adds.