Leonardo hopes later this year to deploy so-called air-launched effects (ALE) from a Wildcat helicopter as it pushes ahead with development of what it believes will be a “significant capability enhancement” for military operators.

ALE sees a swarm of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) working collaboratively to perform a wide variety of missions, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), search and rescue, or even attack. In addition, Leonardo sees the potential for the ALE swarm to act as a deployed part of an aircraft’s defensive aids suite (DAS).

Wildcat HMA2 wing

Source: Leonardo Helicopters

HMA2 variant’s weapons wing could accommodate multiple launch tubes

Future tests will build on trials conducted by the manufacturer last December from Predannack airfield in Cornwall in southwest England in collaboration with Anduril Industries.

During these evaluations, the two firms worked together on the manned-unmanned teaming control software, as well as the ground launch of Altius-600 UAVs produced by Anduril subsidiary Area-I.

These tests allowed the pair to “evaluate and gather real-world performance data on a range of hardware and software components critical to future collaborative drone capabilities”, says Leonardo. Software integration work for the trial was performed at Leonardo’s helicopter facility in Yeovil, Somerset as well as at iAero, a new £10 million ($12 million) aerospace centre located nearby.

“The team developed and practiced the drone-to-aircraft coordination, flight manoeuvres, waypoints, loiter positions and overall command and control necessary for multiple aircraft to function together, autonomously” and have laid “the groundwork for future, more complex trials”, it says.

Dr Simon Harwood, director capability, Leonardo UK, is hopeful that flight tests can be performed in 2023; the company is “conducting a lot of pre-work clearance trials” to enable later this year “integration of that capability on to the platform to conduct those air trials”, he says.

However, the aircraft integration work “is the easy part”, he says, “what we’ll be focusing on is the really difficult part once it’s left the aircraft”. Beyond-line-of-sight trials using multiple UAVs will be the next step, Leonardo notes.

Designed to be deployed from a common launch tube, the Altius-600 is around 2m (6ft 6in) long and can be equipped with a variety of sensor or communications payloads. Leonardo sees the potential for a helicopter like the AW159 Wildcat to carry a double-digit number of such systems.

Harwood hopes the tests can be performed using a Wildcat – the HMA2 variant operated by the Royal Navy has a weapons wing suitable for carriage of multiple launch tubes – but it will depend on the availability of the platform.

Initially a single ALE is likely to be launched, before the company quickly moves to multiple vehicles, he adds.

ALE has the potential to provide a “game-changing capability”, says Harwood. “It really is an opportunity to bring a multitude of emergent and disruptive technology together in a way that changes the way we fight wars.

“It will bring a significant capability enhancement to the aircraft we have not seen to date on the battlefield.”

Leonardo is working on the principle that the UAVs to be deployed would be “attritable”, costing thousands rather than millions of pounds each, he says. No data would be stored on the ALE aircraft either, he notes: “they’ll just be transferring data through them”.

While using drones to undertake ISR or SAR missions is well understood, their employment as part of the DAS – potentially carrying sensors and countermeasures – is new.

“Imagine how much more effective it is if we set a ring of steel a kilometre or 500m ahead of the platform,” says Harwood.

The December tests drew on a September 2020 demonstration that saw a UAV integrated with the mission system of an AW159.