Eurocopter has unveiled an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV), based on its EC145 light twin, which has been in development since September 2011.
However, Jean-Brice Dumont, chief technology officer at Eurocopter, says it only recently obtained permission to perform unmanned flights with the aircraft.
Pilotless sorties have been conducted with the OPV since the beginning of April from Istres air base in the south of France. Gaining clearance to fly the aircraft in its unmanned mode in "populated airspace" is a "major maturity step" for the concept, he adds.
The optionally piloted capability is achieved by plugging in a Eurocopter-developed "black box" to the aircraft's existing avionics system.
It can be controlled from a ground station or, more desirably, fly autonomously. "Although there is a ground station, what the aircraft gets from that is mission assignments," says Dumont.
The ability for the aircraft to fly with the "maximum level of autonomy" presents a "higher level of interest" to potential customers, he says.
It envisages both civil and military applications for the technology, although Dumont suggests a launch customer would mostly likely come from the latter camp.
Discussions over possible sales are ongoing, says Dumont, with some including the requirement for optionally piloted technology as part of wider deals.
He claims an OPV is more attractive than a dedicated unmanned platform as it offers a more cost-effective option.
The OPV technology can be used across the majority of the Eurocopter range with minimum modifications required.