Sextant plans to boost military sales by building on established technologies Stewart Penney/BORDEAUX

French avionics specialist Sextant intends to increase its military sales by implementing a three-pronged strategy. It wants to increase its presence in pan-European aircraft programmes, expand its mid-life update and retrofit market penetration and acquire a US avionics company.

This will allow it to build on its established technologies as well as to acquire complementary businesses. Sextant's strategy takes account of the new world in which it finds itself of avionics "mega-mergers" and reduced global outlay son defence, particularly in its home market.

Sextant, like many aerospace companies, built its technology base during the Cold War, developing products for France's defence ministry. Like others, it has been forced to adapt to the realities of reduced military spending and to seek markets outside its traditionally rich feeding grounds.

As a defence supplier, Sextant, a wholly-owned subsidiary of French electronics giant Thomson-CSF, specialises in helmets and cockpit displays - including head-up displays (HUDs) - navigation systems, autopilots, flight controls and system integration for fighters, large aircraft and helicopters. To boost its offerings in the last category, it offers complete packages using radar and electro-optical systems from its parent company.

Sextant also has vertically integrated capabilities, developing and manufacturing the specialised glass for its active-matrix liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), application-specific integrated circuits, and gyros and rate sensors. Christian Michaudet, Sextant's strategy, marketing and sales director for military aircraft avionics, says that mastering technology is crucial to retaining an independent defence capability, but can also prove "fruitful" in the civil world.

Although French defence spending has declined, Sextant still has a major presence in large French and European military programmes, including the Dassault Rafale fighter and Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter. Sextant is also the cockpit instrumentation and systems partner on the Franco-Russian MiG-AT advanced trainer programme and is active in the mid-life update market. Upgrade work includes South African Air Force (SAAF) Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules (Flight International, 18-24 August) and Spanish air force Dassault Mirage F1s.

Jean-Loic Galle, Sextant president and general manager for military aircraft avionics, says the experience from European programmes such as the Tiger and the four-nation NH Industries NH90 multirole helicopter should put the company in a strong position for forthcoming pan-European defence programmes. These include the seven-nation Airbus Military Company A400M and the German/Italian MPA2000 requirement for a new maritime patrol aircraft to replace ageing Dassault Atlantics, a programme that the French are likely to join.

Michaudet says Sextant's military business achieved sales of c180 million ($200 million) last year, including 40% from the French forces and 30% directly exported by Sextant, with a similar volume indirectly exported via sales of Dassault aircraft. By sector, 55% of Sextant's defence production is for fighters, 13% for transports, surveillance and other large aircraft, 10% for trainers and light attack aircraft, with the rest accrued from product support. About 52% of this year's $87 million predicted helicopter business sales is for military projects, not least those for the Tiger and the NH90.


Sextant splits its military cockpit offerings into three: Topflight, Topdeck and the Dassault Rafale EMTI cockpit and avionics architecture. Topflight is for trainers - such as the MiG-AT (left) and upgraded Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jets - and fighter upgrades. Topdeck is for transports such as the CASA C295 and the SAAF's upgraded C-130Bs. A typical Topflight system will include Sextant's Smart HUD and integral upfront control panel, and a range of LCD-based flight and multifunction displays (MFDs). These are linked via a 1553B databus to the company's Totem inertial navigation/global positioning system and its air data unit, autopilot, mission computer and other components. Sextant's Topsight helmet-mounted display (HMD), developed for the Rafale, can also be included in the package. Sextant has moved away from its "integrated helmet", which included the breathing apparatus and communications system within the helmet's structure and made the wearer look like an extra from Star Wars. It is now working on a more conventional helmet with a separate communications/life support mask.

Sextant produces a variety of MFDs with sizes ranging from 127 x 102mm (5 x 4in) to 203 x 203mm. As well as producing a range of sizes, it also supplies "smart", "semi-smart" and "dumb" displays. The first has integral data processing and graphics generation, creating a compact unit that plugs directly into a 1553B databus (or its Arinc 629 civil equivalent). Semi-smart units, such as those selected by British Aerospace for the Nimrod 2000 cockpit, have only graphics generation, while dumb MFDs are simply displays.

In the past six months, Galle says, Sextant has started to sell specialised glass for LCDs to its competitors, Elbit of Israel and the UK's Smiths Industries, which have been affected by the financial difficulties of other suppliers.

The man-machine interface for helicopters is more generic, explains Sextant marketing and sales director Jacky Cloue, and, like the machines themselves, can be used as the basis for civil or military use.

"Helicopters have many missions, many capabilities, one or two pilots, some are armed, some fly only in VMC [visual meteorological conditions] and others under IFR [instrument flight rules]. Therefore we use a modular system," he says. The challenge is then to provide the required capability at minimum cost.

A recent helicopter success was the SAAF's selection of Sextant displays for Agusta A109s. Galle says this win follows Sextant's C-130B upgrade selection and work on the Denel Rooivalk attack helicopter, and close links with South Africa's Aviatronics and Kentron.

Establishing close links is a strategy followed by Sextant in India and Russia. India has selected the French manufacturer's equipment for its MAPO/Sokol-developed Mikoyan MiG-21 upgrade as well as for its Sukhoi Su-30s. It recently won an order to supply 40 autopilots for Sepecat Jaguar upgrades and is working on India's indigenous Hindustan Aeronautics ALH helicopter.

Tiger helmets


Once more, the English and French have resorted to their traditional pastime: doing battle. Sextant and UK-based rival Marconi Electronic Systems (MES) developed HMDs for the Tiger. The French army selected Sextant's home-grown Topowl, while the German army selected the MES Knighthelm (left). While both helmets do the same job - allowing the pilot and gunner to fly and fight the machine at low level, day and night - the two companies have taken different approaches to the problem. Common features include the ability to mix the flight symbology and weapons-aiming symbology with the picture generated by the Tiger's forward-looking infrared sensors or image intensifiers attached to the helmet. Both allow the vision system to be hinged away from the eyes and the face to allow the gunner to look into a weapons sight, and both allow the crew to wear nuclear, biological and chemical warfare breathing apparatus.

Sextant's Topowl (below left) projects a 40° field of view (FoV) display on to the visor, with the stroke symbology projected in front of one eye, selectable by the pilot. Sextant believes that projecting onto the visor allows a pilot to shift his or her eyes to look at cockpit instruments - rather than requiring a head movement.


Head position sensing- essential if sensors and weapon seekers are to be boresighted to the crewman's stare - is provided via an electro-magnetic head tracker. The optical system wraps around the helmet at eye level. Image intensifiers for night/low-light-level vision can be unclipped when not required, reducing the helmet weight from just under 2.2kg (5lb) to less than 2kg.

The helmet itself comes in two parts: the optical system - including the visor, which is specific to an aircraft, and the head protection, which is personal to the aircrew. Each element has an umbilical cord linking it to the airframe. The one attached to the helmet carries the communications link, that to the visor carries the data required by the display.

Marconi's Knighthelm also comes in two parts and has a 40° FoV. The opticals differ significantly in that a binocular image is projected on to lenses in front of the wearer's eyes. These can be hinged up off the gunner's face so that the look-down sight can be used. The Knighthelm has a single umbilical linking it to the helicopter's systems.

Sextant's Topowl is being offered on the four-nation NH90 helicopter, to meet German requirements for a binocular system, and the symbology can be switched to appear in front of the left, right or both eyes.

Source: Flight International