Italian manufacturer moves away from last year's conventional configuration and introduces modular payload variant

Italy's Alenia Aeronautica has unveiled a substantially altered design for its Sky-X unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator, moving away from the largely conventional configuration first shown in model form last year.

Set to make its debut flight next year, the unmanned vehicle will act as a trials platform for strike applications and unmanned reconnaissance tasks, says Luciano Fava, Alenia's vice-president for advanced programmes.

Pictured here for the first time, the latest design iteration - which is at least the third to have been completed by the company - introduces an innovative modular payload concept, which will enable the air vehicle to operate with either an electro-optic sensor or synthetic-aperture radar sensor or integrate a removable weapons bay.

The revised Sky-X design is set to undergo sensor integration and fly its first sorties in the first quarter of 2005, says Fava. This process will culminate in 2007-8 with Alenia's scheduled achievement of fully autonomous flights, including automatic take-offs and landings.

Alenia is now considering whether to play a part in Europe's French-led UCAV technology demonstrator project, under which prime contractor Dassault Aviation will fly a collaborative vehicle in 2008. The project already has the backing of the Greek and Swedish governments, and industry involvement from both Hellenic Aerospace Industries and Saab Aerosystems. Dassault lists Alenia and other companies such as Sukhoi and Thales as potential partners on the €300 million ($356 million) project, and says 50% of the planned workshare will be made available to non-French firms.

Dassault hopes to oversee the signature of a partnership agreement for the UCAV demonstrator effort around mid-year, with a contract likely to follow around September 2004.

Alenia has, however, also discussed possible UCAV collaboration with BAE Systems, Boeing, EADS and Israel Aircraft Industries. "Our goal is for partnership within Europe - only if this fails will we look to cross the Atlantic. Today there is a gap between the US and European industries…if we don't act, this will increase," says Fava.

Alenia believes the Italian air force will identify a requirement for a UCAV system to enter service around 2020, with the low-observable design to have a range of around 1,800km (1,000nm) and an endurance of 4h.

The strike system will operate at altitudes up to 25,000ft (7,620m) and have a maximum speed of around M0.9.

The company is also co-operating with Italy's Cira research institute to study other possible national requirements for medium- and high-altitude unmanned air vehicles for introduction from 2010-20.

Italy could also adopt an interim solution to some of its reconnaissance needs through the procurement of optionally piloted aircraft, says Fava. This step could also help the country address air-traffic management issues tied to the introduction of unmanned aircraft, according to Fava.

Source: Flight International