April saw Airbus Defence & Space celebrate 10 years since its Barracuda unmanned air vehicle test had performed its first autonomous take-off in Murcia, Spain. But while the German-Spanish programme was once touted as a competitor to the Dassault-led pan-European Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator programme, Barracuda’s most significant testing took place some years ago.

The German defence ministry incorporated the UAV into its “agile UAV in a network-centric environment” effort, which saw a series of flight tests carried out at Goose Bay in Canada in 2012. Five flights of the Barracuda saw it fly alongside a manned Bombardier Learjet, which was acting as a surrogate UAV to support the testing.

During the flights, the aircraft acted against a fixed and a moving target, with one aircraft acquiring the targets and passing the information to the other aircraft, which then "prosecuted" the target without actually firing any weapons. Other testing also took place in Vidsel, Sweden, but not a great deal more has been made public. A crash, not long after its first flight in 2006 in Spain, was not the best of starts for the test bed, but Airbus is confident development will continue.

“Even if this programme for demonstrating successful target identification and tracking, flying different roles/formations, and urban close air support has now been concluded, 10 years on from its maiden flight Barracuda is far from over,” Airbus said in April. “Thanks to its modular design and its expanded growth potential, it still has many years of service ahead as a test bed for approaches to and procedures for unmanned aerial systems, helping to judge the risks involved in developing future highly agile UAS programmes.”

The 8m-long Barracuda features a Pratt & Whitney Canada jet turbine engine that delivers 3,147lb (14kN) of thrust, and can carry electro-optical and infrared sensors, laser target designators, an emitter locator system consisting of detectors for picking up radio-magnetic signals and a synthetic aperture radar.

Elsewhere in the German inventory, the air force is a seasoned operator of the Israel Aerospace Industries Heron, which is operated on a lease basis through Airbus. Throughout operations in Afghanistan, the Heron 1 variant was used by Berlin to carry out surveillance, and in January 2016 it was announced that the Bundeswehr had opted to upgrade to the Heron TP, under a services contract with Airbus.

A contract is yet to be signed, Airbus tells Flightglobal, but negotiations are under way. The ILA air show in Berlin in June will see a mock-up of the Heron TP presented by the companies, and it is expected that a contract will be signed sometime after the event.

The TP won the downselect over the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper, which was being offered by RUAG as prime contractor, but it is only being provided as an interim system, until a clean sheet medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV is indigenously developed in Europe.

Berlin’s choice to overlook the Reaper makes it an exception in Europe, where many nations have opted for the US design over Israeli systems. France, Italy, Spain and the UK have all purchased the type, while the Netherlands has selected it but is yet to sign the contract.

Germany began leasing the Heron 1 in 2010, and a number of extensions have been negotiated, most recently in April 2015; German company Rheinmetall acted as the facilitator before selling its airborne solutions division to Airbus. The current lease deal could be stretched to 2017, but regardless there will be a gap of a couple of years to the start of a contract to introduce a Heron 1 replacement, so another extension is expected.

European nations are now holding out the development of a European MALE effort to challenge the US Reaper and Israeli systems that dominate the market, with Germany – and France and Italy – investing in the programme. The project, once known as MALE 2020 in reference to a now-unachievable completion timetable, is now being called simply “Future European MALE”. A two-year definition study phase kicked off in May 2015, which sees Airbus, Dassault Aviation and Leonardo work together to outline a concept.

Each company has its own idea on how this UAV would look, and during ILA they will present a holographic representation of each design.

Evident through its involvement in the development of a home-grown MALE system, plus the condition of a German prime on its Heron leasing, Berlin is noticeably interested in retaining sovereignty over its UAVs, and this extends into its consideration of its signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft replacement programme.

In an effort to replace the now-retired, manned Breguet Atlantics that had previously carried out its SIGINT role, Germany, in 2000, sought to convert a Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAV into an unmanned electronics and communications intelligence platform using an Airbus payload. This Euro Hawk programme resulted in one example being delivered to Manching air base in Germany, although this was put into storage when the programme was cancelled due to financing and airspace integration challenges, a scandal that resulted in then-defence minister Thomas de Maiziere being shifted to the interior ministry. However, the programme is now being revived, and Airbus and Northrop are again working together to test the payload on the HALE platform.

One of the main challenges was airspace integration, but the companies are confident that contributing factors such as the lack of de-icing, weather radar and collision-avoidance capability can be overcome to allow Euro Hawk – or a new iteration of it – to be certified.

The payload could still ultimately be integrated on a manned aircraft, but Northrop’s more advanced MQ-4C Triton variant of Global Hawk could also be considered.

Five RQ-4s are being delivered to NATO under its Alliance Ground Surveillance programme, and lessons in integrating into European airspace could be shared with Germany to help facilitate HALE operations in Europe. Norway is also oft-touted as a potential Global Hawk customer, so experience in operations could spread across the continent.

On the naval side, Schiebel and German company Diehl are offering the Schiebel Camcopter unmanned air vehicle for ship-borne operations.

Schiebel says that the two companies are working on “several programmes” for the German armed forces, which previously tested the Camcopter from the Braunschweig-class corvettes, while the UAV was once touted for a German minefield surveillance application for the army.

In keeping with the drive to operate sovereign UAVs, German land forces operated a number of domestically developed UAVs during the Afghanistan campaign, including the Rheinmetall KZO reconnaissance and target detection UAV, the EMT Luna and Aladin types, plus the AirRobot Mikado.

The soldier-level systems were widely deployed in Afghanistan, building up many hours of reconnaissance data.

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Source: FlightGlobal.com