Europe Launches Wave Of Airborne Robots
Firms leverage design, production expertise for a new generation of platforms.
A number of advanced unmanned aircraft systems are poised to enter service with military forces across Europe. This is the result of a continentwide investment in robotic aerial vehicles representing advances in current vehicles and new platforms. The aircraft all share a modular design approach for rapid mission customization and versatility.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are quickly becoming a vital part of military inventories for reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Although some of these platforms have been in service since the early 1990s, advances in technology such as satellite communications and datalinks now make these airborne robots more potent tools for battlefield information gathering. Recent successful combat operations with armed UAVs are a precursor to fielding a class of dedicated unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) now in development. Keenly aware of the work done by U.S. aerospace firms, European defense companies are channeling their expertise into a new generation of robotic aircraft.
Two continental firms heavily involved in UAV design and development are European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) Company, Paris, and Alenia Aeronautica, Rome. An experienced manufacturer of UAVs, EADS has a variety of systems operating with armed forces around the world.
A new EADS platform entering service with the French air force in early 2004 is the Eagle medium altitude, long endurance UAV. Designed as a multimission vehicle, the Eagle can be configured for different operations such as surveillance, reconnaissance, communications relay duties, and search and rescue efforts. Depending on the type of payload, it also can perform target designation and illumination missions, explains Agnes Ferragu, marketing and sales director, EADS Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Systems France, Saint Quentin en Yvelines.
Powered by a turboprop engine, the twin-boom configuration aircraft has two versions, one optimized for endurance and the other for high speed and altitude. The high-endurance model can cruise up to 30 hours at 25,000 feet, while the high-altitude version can reach an operational ceiling of 45,000 feet. Both versions have an operational range of more than 620 miles. The aircraft features satellite and line-of-sight communications systems. Ferragu notes that the active satellite link permits the UAV to operate and transmit data at long ranges, while the line-of-sight system is used for takeoff and landing.
The aircraft is configured around a large cargo bay. The twin-boom layout enhances this capability because the landing gear retracts into the booms while the fuel tanks partially occupy wing spaces, she says. The booms also house additional antennas. A version of the UAV displayed at the Paris Air Show was configured for nautical surveillance operations with a synthetic aperture maritime patrol radar, electro-optical and infrared sensors, and a laser target designator. According to Ferragu, the Eagle is the only UAV in its class capable of supporting maritime patrol radar.
The Eagle’s satellite communications system features a unique hexapodal mounting system that permits the antenna to track a satellite signal accurately at all elevations. The six-legged mounting structure also serves to reduce weight, she says.
Safety and reliability are important operational criteria for the aircraft. Ferragu explains that a majority of UAV accidents take place during landing and takeoff. All of the Eagle’s critical systems are redundant, including split control surfaces. It features an automated takeoff and landing system designed for hands-off operation. This capability permits a fully automated mission. Since no pilots are required for the beginning or end of an operation, the crew can consist entirely of mission specialists, she says.
A groundstation can control up to three Eagles simultaneously. During a long-range mission, the UAV can travel up to six hours to a target, loiter for 12 hours over the area then travel back to base. While the first aircraft is on station, another can be launched. Both UAVs then electronically hand off mission data, and the first aircraft returns to base as the other one begins its operations in a target area. A minimum of three UAVs can continuously observe an area for days or weeks in this configuration, she says.
It is a low-maintenance aircraft. Ferragu notes that a typical squadron of 12 fighter jets requires up to 500 support personnel, while only 100 are necessary for the same number of Eagles.
EADS is leveraging existing systems and technologies for future applications. One example is the CL-289, a truck-launched high-speed reconnaissance drone that has been in service with NATO forces since the early 1990s. Patrick Oswald, vice president of the EADS tactical UAV unit in Saint Quentin en Yvelines, France, notes that this system has been combat proven in the Balkans and Afghanistan and is being upgraded continuously. Recent improvements include enhanced datalinks, high-resolution digital infrared sensors for three-dimensional target identification, high-resolution synthetic aperture radar, increased operational range and data storage capabilities.
The CL-289 operates by approaching a target at high speed, up to 435 miles per hour, at altitudes as low as 985 feet to avoid anti-aircraft fire. EADS is borrowing these capabilities for a new prototype French army UAV called Surveyor-600. Unlike the CL-289, which it may replace, the Surveyor has varying operational speeds. With a rocket booster, it is designed to accelerate and reach its target quickly, but once it is there, it decelerates and uses its jet engine to loiter over the area for up to an hour before sprinting back to its recovery area.
The Surveyor features larger wings than the CL-289, permitting it to operate at lower speeds and allowing it to launch from a truck with a catapult instead of a rocket booster. Designed for greater endurance, the new UAV has greater mission flexibility. The aircraft is equipped with a radio emissions detector, and it can alter its course during a mission to investigate suspected emission sources with its visual sensors, Oswald explains.
EADS also is developing several rotary-wing UAVs for ground and naval applications. The Scorpio minihelicopter is designed for use by French special forces and army units as an over-the-hill tactical reconnaissance system. Weighing 28 pounds, the aircraft can be assembled and readied for flight in 10 minutes. It features a push-button automatic takeoff capability that can be operated by untrained personnel. The UAV has an operational endurance of one hour. An advanced stabilization system permits Scorpio to hover and return clear, vibration-free imagery in winds as high as 25 miles per hour. It features an internal global positioning satellite system transceiver and miniaturized electro-optic sensors. A larger version weighing 88 pounds and featuring a two-hour endurance is being developed for maritime reconnaissance and surveillance operations staged from small deck areas.
Oswald notes that many navies now require large UAVs for shipboard use. To fill this niche, EADS developed the Orca, a large rotary wing UAV derived from a small two-person helicopter. The result of extensive naval helicopter studies, the Orca can autonomously launch and land from a ship with a 165 to 220 pound payload. It has an eight-hour flight endurance.
Developed around lightweight materials such as composite rotor blades, the Orca-1200 is designed to provide support to a naval task force by supplementing its manned helicopter component. In many areas of the world, especially in littoral areas, a real threat exists of terrorist attacks from low-flying aircraft or high-speed boats, Oswald says. UAVs such as the Orca can provide 24-hour surveillance for a task force, saving the more powerful manned helicopters for actual combat missions. Equipped with a surface search radar and a variety of electro-optic sensors, it can conduct a number of operations ranging from surveillance and reconnaissance missions to electronic warfare, antisubmarine operations, search and rescue missions, and littoral warfare. He notes that a number of Asian navies have shown interest in the UAV.
Alenia Aeronautica is producing a UAV/UCAV demonstrator to develop and integrate the technologies necessary for future aircraft projects. According to Giovanni Bertolone, Alenia’s senior vice president for engineering, Torino, Italy, Alenia will be concentrating on three components: groundstations, flight systems and high and medium altitude, long endurance and tactical UAVs. The company currently is concentrating its efforts on mission management systems to tie the entire development process together. He emphasizes that the aircraft is only a testbed to develop new UAV research and production techniques.
To accelerate development, Alenia is building an advanced testing regime consisting of virtual sensors designed to detect failures in redundant avionics systems. The program also is undertaking a number of integration and configuration programs for enabling technologies such as autonomous navigation and network interoperability, payload types and configurations, and manufacturing processes.
Because European research and development is complex and time-consuming, often taking a decade or more to develop a system, Alenia seeks a rapid design and development approach to produce a prototype. Bertolone also hopes this effort will have a broader influence on program development. “In general, I have to say that the culture of the demonstrator is not as consolidated in Europe as it is in the U.S. We are trying not just to make a new product, but also to introduce a new demonstrator culture,” he maintains.
The firm plans to have the aircraft ready for flight testing by 2005. It also is working with the Italian Center for Air and Space Research to certify areas such as the flight controls, datalinks, operational autonomy and interoperability. Bertolone notes that much of the design, development and experimentation work is done virtually. Systems work began this January, and the fuselage is already 90 percent complete, he says. A prototype aircraft, dubbed “Iron Bird,” was rolled out in May. The demonstrator aircraft is designed for modularity, so that radar, electronics and other payloads can be easily plugged into the vehicle.
An important adjunct to Alenia’s UAV/UCAV work is the creation of a UCAV laboratory to coordinate the firm’s various simulation and design efforts. The laboratory also supports research into optimizing the human-machine interface for groundstation personnel. By the end of the summer, a full set of aerodynamic flight characteristics for the UCAV demonstrator were loaded into simulators, Bertolone says. Work is underway to design and develop a groundstation for the aircraft. The firm is relying on extensive experience gained from the Eurofighter program to provide the simulators with highly accurate, three-dimensional maps of Europe. The center itself is virtual, with research facilities across Europe connected to share data and expertise. He hopes the laboratory will help to develop a variety of UAVs rapidly across Europe.