UAVs hit stride

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PETER LA FRANCHI / LONDON

Co-operative European developments are pushing the technology forward

Unmanned air vehicles could be gracing the flying display at the next Paris air show for the first time. It will be a sign of how fast UAV technology has leapt into the mainstream of the industry.

The aircraft may have remained on the ground at this year's show, but significant programme advances abounded, including the French government's green light for the funded development of a full-scale unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) prototype to fly by 2008.

Receiving less attention, but opening a new focus for the evolution of UCAVs outside the Western alliance, was the announcement by Dassault and Sukhoi that they are to jointly explore unmanned fighter concepts. While details of the proposed arrangements remain scant, the agreement highlights wider European interest in co-operative UCAV development activities, contrasting with the "go it alone" approach of the USA.

There are four separate UCAV development programmes under way within Europe. Dassault and Saab each have concept demonstrators flying, while Alenia Aerospace, which unveiled its own UCAV concept demonstration programme before the show began, intends to fly a half-scale prototype in 2004. EADS has a design programme under way but is yet to indicate whether this will proceed beyond the conceptual stage.

The dependency of UCAVs on network-centric warfare architectures for their command and control was highlighted in Paris. Alenia revealed that it has set up a basic UCAV development and integration laboratory, making heavy use of simulation technologies, to support development of UCAV remote operator stations.

The laboratory will explore options for incremental growth in UCAV operational roles and support UCAV operator training. Consideration is also being given to the development of a standalone UCAV simulation environment, which could be commercialised as the basis of a future off-the-shelf UCAV operator training suite.

EADS unveiled a demonstrator of its proposed NETCOS Network Centric Operations Simulation architecture. This system is being developed to support faster battlefield data and targeting exchanges by a variety of airborne strike platforms, including UAVs and UCAVs.

Dominating the news in the high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAV sector was the announcement that trials of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk are to go ahead in German airspace during October.

The Italian Centre for Aerospace Research (CIRA) confirmed that conceptual work is continuing on the CR/X3 and C/X4 "flying laboratory" HALE UAVs planned as part of that nation's 10-year aerospace research and development programme launched in 2001. If built, the X3 would fly in 2008, with the X4 following after 2010. X3 is intended to demonstrate generic HALE capabilities, while X4 is seen as a prototype atmospheric communications relay satellite.

CIRA also unveiled a model of the planned CR/X2 medium-altitude endurance UAV demonstrator. The CR/X2 is intended to fly for the first time in 2005-6. The air vehicle would have an 11.7m (38.4ft)-wingspan, a maximum take-off weight of 478kg (1,050lb) and a cruise speed of 107kt (198km/h).

Dassault confirmed that it is actively exploring options for development of a second-generation medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV. The company released artists' impressions of a joined wing, jet-powered air vehicle that could fly around 2012-3.

Dassault chairman and chief executive Charles Edelstenne said at the show that his firm wants to "combine its expertise with that of other European companies with experience" in this segment of the UAV market. The near-term target is the French air force's MALE requirement, with a competition launched in October last year and study phase contracts due to be awarded within a few weeks.

EADS is competing in the same project with its Eagle 2 UAV. The first production EADS-Israeli Aircraft Industries Eagle 1 system ordered by the French air force as an interim MALE solution was displayed for the first time at the show.

In the tactical UAV sector, the French army's multi-sensor, multi-mission (MCMM) competition resulted in several new UAVs being unveiled by the Dassault-Sagem Tactical UAV (DSTU) joint venture and EADS.

The MCMM requirement calls for an initial reconnaissance of a focal area at high speed with a combination of electro-optic and electronic warfare sensors being simultaneously used to locate and identify targets. Data generated by the "fast" system would then be used to cue the "slow" surveillance platform. The requirement saw EADS unveil a new generation, high-speed, low-altitude surveillance UAV derived from the Meteor Mirach 100.5 target drone, and an endurance tactical UAV based on the conversion of a DynAero MCR S4 light aeroplane.

Thales confirmed that it is offering MCMM, but declined to reveal details. Thales Defence Group chief operating officer Francois Lureau said at the show that "we will be there with a very strong team". He said Thales had developed a "very strong knowledge base" about tactical UAV operations while competing for the UK Ministry of Defence's Watchkeeper requirement. Thales would offer "something very efficient for the MCMM programme".

DSTU confirmed that its bid for the MCMM requirement would be met by a single new-generation stealth tactical UAV, rather than the two separate UAV types.

The new UAV will be based on the "Moyen Duc" low-observable platform, developed under Dassault's "Logiduc" UCAV programme, with all mission systems, avionics and ground infrastructure derived from the Sagem Sperwer UAV family. It will be powered by two small jet engines and be capable of flying at 392kt in reconnaissance or "fast" mode and 117kt in surveillance or "slow" mode.

Sagem says the stealth tactical UAV will have an endurance of 3h with a 50kg multi-sensor payload capacity. The UAV would take off using a Sperwer catapult launcher and recover by means of a parachute. First flights of a company-funded demonstrator are planned for year-end.

Dassault's Edelstenne says that additional partners in the development programme are being sought, possibly leading to the expansion of the DSTU JV. "This company is open to European co-operation," he says.

Sagem also unveiled mock-ups of its proposed ordnance carriage arrangements for an armed version of the Sperwer tactical UAV. A prototype Sperwer LE variant was displayed fitted with a combination of a single starboard wing launch tube for a generic fire-and-forget missile, and a port wing stores canister holding two 155mm Bofors-Giat Bonus anti-armour submunitions.

Fire-and-forget missile options being marketed by Sagem include the Rafael Spike and the Raytheon/Lockheed Martin Javelin. The final configuration of an armed Sperwer LE would comprise either four Bonus rounds or two fire-and-forget weapons.