Thales has been an understated yet significant player in the unmanned air vehicle (UAV) market for some time now, but is making a number of advances in the military UAV domain, as well as exploring new technologies related to the growing operation of this type of system.
Its most significant contribution to the market is as the prime contractor for the British Army’s WK450 Watchkeeper, a tactical UAV that is based on an Elbit Systems Hermes 450 air vehicle that has been modified to carry Thales’ I-Master radar.
The UAV received a release to service in 2014 and made a short deployment to Afghanistan before British troops withdrew from operations. In an effort to get the UAV into service – the original intention was for it to support ongoing operations in Afghanistan – it was planned for the programme to receive spiral upgrades over its lifetime, to ultimately receive capabilities such as de-icing, the ability to land on rough strips, and mapping.
A software upgrade is now being rolled out to the fleet, which will support spiral upgrades that will allow the UAV to carry out extra exploitation and operate in multiple modes, Nick Miller, UAS sales and business development manager at Thales, tells Flight Daily News. The army will conduct operational field trials in Wales using this software upgrade in coming months.
The systems that have not yet been delivered – the army has received all ground control stations but is still to receive some air vehicles – will have the software upgrade included, while already delivered systems will receive a retrofit to meet this standard over the next year.
Watchkeeper was used during the Royal Navy’s Unmanned Warrior exercise in October 2016, during which it demonstrated the maritime application of the radar, including for the first time its ability to cue the electro-optical/infrared sensor to take a closer look when it spots a target of interest.
A number of the army’s systems are in strategic storage because they are not required for operational service. One option to utilise these systems could be for the navy to take some examples into its fleet, and Unmanned Warrior was an initial test bed for this.
Miller adds that integration of the UAV feed into naval vessels would be the next step for integration in this domain.
Watchkeeper has previously demonstrated its ability to fly in UK national airspace and be controlled by standard ATM, and Miller says there is more upcoming work planned in this area.
It is also being pitched for Poland’s Gryf tactical UAV requirement, for which Thales has teamed with local company PGZ.
“There is a serious assessment going on at the moment, and [Poland] see it as highly capable; it’s a strong contender,” Miller says.
There is a requirement for Gryf to be armed, and Thales has previously detailed the possibility of offering its FreeFall Lightweight Multirole Missile for this.
“I think people still see that sensor to shooter part as important,” Miller says, noting that there are advantages with one platform being able to carry out the entire surveillance and attack mission. “Sometimes there is a need for a fast effector to be on board.”
Another key move for the company is the development of its Spy’Ranger UAV, which is undergoing a number of specific modifications ahead of delivery to the French army’s combined arms brigade.
The service is due to receive up to 70 systems comprising three air vehicles each under the January 2017 contract, which are expected to begin being delivered and be qualified for French service in the first quarter of 2019.
Supported by the company’s Spy’C control software, which was used in Afghanistan with Thales’ Spy Arrow UAV, the company says that the S-band connection of the system will make it appealing to export customers.
Spy’Ranger has a 2h 30min endurance and an operating range of 15-30km, and is carried between two backpacks for expeditionary missions. It will replace the Airbus Defence and Space Drac UAV that was first delivered to France in 2008.
Thales also successfully demonstrated its counter-UAV (C-UAV) system to a number of potential customers in April during a test at Brittany in the northwest of France.
It included the company’s Black Finder RF direction finder system, Squire ground surveillance radar and Margot 8000 camera, all based some 1km apart and able to detect and track small UAVs over a 3.5km range.
One screen presented the picture that the sensors had produced, and Michel Dechanet, air defence business development director for Thales, says that all of the systems worked together effectively.
The system has been sold to an undisclosed customer, he adds, and is already in service.
The concept was first revealed by Thales ahead of the last Paris air show in 2015, at which point a short-term offering was being developed for testing, as well as a co-developed system for the French national research agency’s 18-month development programme, Angelas.
Angelas was co-ordinated by French aerospace laboratory Onera, and included six industrial and academic organisations developing C-UAV technology.
“The message is that we can deliver this now,” Dechanet says of the April 2017 demonstrations.
He adds that more trials are likely to be carried out in the coming months, to build on the interest the company saw from the observers of the testing.
The C-UAV system could also complement the unmanned traffic management (UTM) system that Thales is developing, which at the moment is an application-based capability that is layered onto its ECOsystem ATM management system.
Dechanet says that while the surveillance requirements for a full UTM system are not yet defined, the C-UAV system is “totally complementary”, and it could in theory provide the necessary surveillance for a UAV management system over a defined area.
He notes that there are still issues to be resolved with regards to the management of low-flying UAVs in airspace shared with manned aircraft, such as where the responsibility will lie and which authorities will control it. As a result of this, much of the work is developmental until government regulations are defined.
“We could manage the non-cooperative element,” he adds. “There is interest in this… and, by the end of development, the two systems will be consistent with one another.”
Source: Flight International