Remote horizon: BAE Systems' UAV plans unveiled

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BAE Systems has lifted the veil on its unmanned air vehicle development activities and begun pursuing sales opportunities outside the military sector

BAE Systems’ recent disclosure of a more than three-year programme to design, develop and test unmanned aircraft systems has revealed a project of greater sophistication than had been anticipated, and highlighted the UK company’s intention of carving a significant niche in a rapidly expanding sector of the global aerospace market.

In announcing the creation of an Autonomous Systems and Future Capability (Air) component of its Air Systems business in February, BAE also revealed that it considers the development of unmanned air vehicles to be inextricably linked to its manned fighter, trainer and reconnaissance aircraft activities.

Classification issues and industrial sensitivities mean both the UK’s lead defence contractor and its Ministry of Defence are reluctant to divulge much about their current cooperation in the military UAV sector. However, the manufacturer has highlighted the potential of a multi-purpose design which last August became the first unmanned platform to make a fully autonomous flight in UK airspace with Civil Aviation Authority certification.

Unveiled late last year, the 450kg (990lb) Herti-1A (High-Endurance Rapid Technology Insertion) medium-altitude long-endurance UAV (pictured below) could perform a variety of military and civilian tasks and will offer a mission endurance of more than 25h, according to its designers.

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Following a programme during which five different UAVs were designed and flown in a little over three years, the company has decided to fund a major expansion to its flight-test activities and 10 of the Herti airframes will be available by year-end (Flight International, 21-27 February).

Work began in earnest in 2001, when BAE launched a spiral development programme by conducting computer modelling and simulation work on a blended wing-body remotely-piloted vehicle in conjunction with Cranfield University. The Kestrel platform made one flight in March 2003 near Campbeltown in Scotland powered by two small jet engines. However, the 140kg design, which had a 5.5m (18ft) wing span, proved so difficult to control that its developers decided that full autonomy should be introduced, with follow-on air vehicles to remove the risk of accidents.

Finless Raven

A subsequent nine-month design and build process led to the December 2003 flight of the Raven unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) platform (pictured below), demonstrating technologies related to the UK’s now-abandoned Future Offensive Air System project. Describing the finless design as representative of a sixth-generation air vehicle, Andy Wilson, BAE’s sales and marketing director for military autonomous systems (air), says: “It flew just as a manned aircraft would, although it is a highly unstable vehicle with complex control laws.” A second Raven demonstrator also conducted test flights from Australia’s Woomera test range from November 2004.

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Core technology from the Raven – including its flight control system, ground station and composite centre fuselage – was then evolved to demonstrate operations of the Corax unmanned reconnaissance air vehicle derivative from January 2005. With a longer and higher aspect-ratio wing than the Raven, the Corax airframe has prompted parallels with Lockheed Martin’s ill-fated DarkStar surveillance UAV project of the mid/late-1990s, and BAE confirms that it studied the lessons of the US company’s activities as part of its demonstration effort.

By December 2004, BAE had adapted its unmanned technologies to a more readily marketable platform – a glider-like airframe created by J&AS Aero Design of Poland then a jet-powered -1D version of the Herti – in order to advance its research into areas such as autonomy, low-observable technology and systems engineering. The 350kg vehicle, which has an 8m wing span, made numerous flights before its configuration was revised into the larger, propeller-driven -1A variant now being produced in quantity. Featuring duplex fly-by-wire flight controls, a 12.6m wing span and a redesigned undercarriage, the Herti-1A can operate at altitudes above 20,000ft with a 150kg payload and “could stay up for the best part of 30h”, says Wilson.

Another key element of the demonstrations has been the use of a BAE-developed electro-optical payload, the Imagery Collection and Exploitation (ICE) system. This comprises two wide-view cameras, which can be used to build up tiled image mosaics, plus an optional narrow-view camera turret cued by the primary sensors. The ICE system has an onboard storage and manipulation capability for post-flight analysis, but can also relay compressed images to the ground via a low-bandwidth datalink or even intercontinentally via satellite. For reconnaissance applications, its sensors can also track targets automatically and provide precise ground position data.

The Herti airframe, which could have a range of 3,000km (1,600nm), is also being pitched outside the military market. BAE say it is suitable for surveillance, reconnaissance, battle-damage assessment and communications relay, coastal and pipeline monitoring and environmental or disaster management tasks. “Herti offers a low logistics footprint, multi-vehicle operations and rapid-reaction deployment,” says Wilson, adding that the existing design could meet a currently unsatisfied part of the UAV market. “A lot of people are pitching at UCAVs, but our strategy is to look at areas like surveillance and reconnaissance that others aren’t: extended-eye work.”

Flight tests expected this year include operating up to four air vehicles simultaneously from one ground station and testing the ability to pass platform control to another location for tasking or even landing. BAE also plans to launch a Herti air vehicle – which currently needs a runway or road surface of around 300m for take-off – from a rail launcher, developed by Finland’s Robonic, and a grass strip. “Our priority this year is to fly as much as possible,” says Wilson. But BAE does not plan to fly the Herti during this year’s Farnborough air show, although it will provide an “end-to-end demonstration” of its capabilities as part of its ground exhibit. Related flight testing this year will use a BAe Jetstream development aircraft to demonstrate sense and avoid algorithms developed by the company over the last four years, says BAE.

Coalesced systems

BAE’s work on unmanned systems draws on research conducted elsewhere within the company, including BAE Systems Australia’s work on flight control algorithms and ground stations created by its Integrated System Technologies unit in the USA. It has also digested technology from its manned aircraft programmes, including sensor fusion techniques developed for the Hawk 128, data fusion work conducted in support of the Eurofighter Typhoon and low-level navigation systems from the Panavia Tornado. Engineers with experience on such projects are already embedded in the new unit, which sits alongside similar Air Systems divisions for the Hawk, Nimrod MRA4, Typhoon and Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

Longer-term, the Autonomous Systems and Future Capability (Air) unit will also draw on the lessons learned during the UK’s Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment airspace access programme and other research and technology (R&T) work conducted within UK industry, universities and the MoD. “We will invest in the key technologies required to exploit the market as it matures and continue to use proof-of-concept demonstration programmes to focus the R&T activity and visualise the concepts to the user,” BAE says. Wilson, meanwhile, believes unmanned systems “must be safe, affordable and reliable and have clear product certification” if industry is to overcome regulatory barriers and public perception issues related to their use.

Other key technology demonstration efforts related to the UK’s possible future operation of UCAVs include the MoD’s until recently classified project Nightjar. “The test body developed as part of the Nightjar programme is playing a crucial part in increasing the UK’s knowledge and understanding of how to design and manufacture future air vehicles,” BAE says. The company anticipates a multi-million pound contract from the MoD to run a UCAV technology demonstration programme, which will draw partly on earlier work conducted on the Raven and Corax air vehicles. Company sources say the deal – a contract for which had been expected last month – is now likely to advance after risk-reduction milestones related to the MoD’s Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicles (Experiment) programme have been met. BAE heads an industry team on the project that also comprises Qinetiq, Rolls-Royce and Smiths.

With the MoD’s Defence Industrial Strategy white paper of December 2005 suggesting that the UK is unlikely to acquire another manned fighter after the Typhoon and JSF, BAE’s strategy to invest early in the unmanned sector appears to have been vindicated.

CRAIG HOYLE / LONDON