Alenia Aeronautica’s standing as a player in the fast-developing UAV market has been bolstered by its role a first-level partner in Europe’s Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle program. Last month, the Italian company delivered the first weapons bay doors and its operating mechanism to program leader Dassault Aviation.
The weapons bay forms part of Alenia’s responsibility for the Neuron’s integrated weapons system. In work being done at its Torino Caselle facility in northern Italy, the group also is providing the electrical generation and distribution system and the air data system.
The design of the weapons bay has been driven largely by the need to meet the low-observability requirements of the stealthy Neuron warplane. This prompted Alenia to patent a special seal for the perimeter of the weapons bay doors.
The package is now being installed on a test aircraft being assembled at Dassault’s Istres facility in the south of France. The first flight of the Neuron has been pushed back from late 2011 to early in 2012 as Dassault and its partners await confirmation of a launch for phase two of the program.
Alenia’s role in the Neuron has its origins in its own Sky-X UCAV demonstrator. In May 2005, the Sky-X became the first European UAV weighing more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) and three years later it was the first to achieve an autonomous in-flight refueling connection with a support aircraft. To date, the Sky-X has flown 29 missions logging some 15 flight hours.
The pedigree of Alenia’s UAV actually goes back to the early 1990s when the company started work on a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) aircraft as part of a technology demonstration program called Sky-Y. The initial aim of the Sky-Y project was to develop an ultra-light structure in the MALE class of UAV and also to develop heavy fuel engine technology that would reduce operating costs and enhance endurance.
Today, Sky-Y ground and flight tests are mainly aimed at developing automatic mission functions for ground surveillance and a mid-air collision avoidance system (MIDCAS). The contract to develop the MIDCAS was awarded to Alenia in June 2009 and is due to run for four years. This work is being done under the auspices of the European Defence Agency (EDA) and, in addition to Italy, involves a dozen other countries, including Sweden, Germany, France and Spain.
The EDA chose Sky-Y as a MALE test platform because of its flexible configuration and ability to carry a lot of sensors, and the fact that it represents a typical MALE missions profile. Alenia is working closely with Italy’s ENAC civil aviation authority to prepare the way for fully functional flight testing that is due to start toward the end of this year.
So far, Sky-Y has flown 33 missions (outside civil airspace), logging more than 60 hours. The tests planned for later this year will focus on live demonstrations of its advanced environmental monitoring system (known by its Italian acronym SMAT, for Sistema di Monitoraggio Avanzato del Territorio). The program is being part sponsored by Italy’s Piedmont region, with Sky-Y being used for medium-altitude environmental monitoring. The next phase of flight-testing will be the first time the UAV has been able to fly from civil airports in non-segregated airspace. It is to be followed by a further flight campaign to test new avionics and ground station functionalities.
Alenia’s commercial strategy holds that in a sector widely covered by U.S. and Israeli products the only way to acquire market share is to offer a product that is free from export control restrictions. The company also wants to deliver a platform with modular and open architecture able to accommodate customer enhancements, while minimizing acquisition and life-cycle costs.
The company is currently working on selecting a series of subcontractors in order to create a team ready to cooperate on possible future projects. In this regard, it is looking not only at the industry, but also to universities and other research institutes to help launch a technology development plan. Alenia wants to be a systems integrator for a MALE that, within two or three years, will be ready to compete with the aircraft being jointly developed by France and the UK.
Separately, Alenia also is pressing ahead with plans to develop another UAV weighing less than 2,500 kilograms (5,500 pounds) that could be used for roles such as maritime surveillance and pipeline monitoring. But this program will proceed only as a spin-off from Sky-Y if a launch customer comes forward to commit funding.
Meanwhile, leveraging its simulation capabilities, Alenia also is developing an aircraft flight simulator to support the Sky-Y flight-test campaign. This embedded training system is located inside the operational ground control station (GCS), which, according to the company, makes it a cost-efficient solution for training.
The simulator features a six-degrees-of-freedom model integrated with real GCS equipment to allow it to simulate all the phases of a UAV’s mission as well as its payload. It also gives operators the chance to prepare for several emergency scenarios and different weather conditions. Training missions can be recorded and replayed for debriefing and analysis. Alenia’s intention is that this training platform could be adapted to the Sky-X UCAS if required.