The key technologies being investigated in the current UCAV programs are advanced flight control for tail-less, blended-wing-body configurations; autonomous operation using reconfigurable software; open architecture avionics; secure datalinks; low-cost composite construction; and low observability (for example, stealth). Much effort is also going into operational analysis, for instance, to explore how UCAVs would fit into the battlespace with other manned (or unmanned) platforms.
The two Boeing X-45A demonstrators accomplished much during their 75 flights, starting in May 2002 and ending last summer. Varying the levels of autonomy; auto-abort; handover of control; and in-flight mission replanning were among the early achievements.
The first weapons release came in April 2004. Then came two-ship formations, including simulated attacks against ground radars and missile launchers, during which the UCAVs autonomously used their onboard software to perform evasive maneuvers and determine which of the pair held the optimum position, weapons and fuel to attack the target.
The Neuron project aims to generate some similar capabilities in an all-European design and to keep combat aircraft design skills alive in the absence of any new-start manned programs. As project leader, Dassault wants to capitalize on work started by the partners. For instance, Saab is exploring stealth with its FILUR demonstrator, while Alenia is designing a smart weapons bay for its Sky-X. Dassault has gained tail-less control experience from its AVE-D project. Low-observability will be traded off against cost.
BAE has tested low-observable UAV-type platforms on the ground for many years, and has hinted that the Raven/Corax designs are significantly stealthy, as well as agile. They are constructed from low-cost, low-temperature, rapid-cured carbon fiber composites (CFCs). BAE has also been working on autonomous-operating imaging sensors for UCAVs and UAVs, along with data compression technology that allows transmission at very low bandwidths.
EADS says that new CFCs are also a key feature of the Barracuda. Apart from the landing gear, all the moving parts are electromechanically actuated. This demonstrator “will perform pioneering work toward the certification of UAVs for flight in controlled airspace,” according to EADS. That is also a goal for the Neuron program.
Whether any of the European efforts can match J-UCAS levels of technological sophistication remains to be seen. BAE has not been specific about sensors. EADS says it will add electro-optical and infrared systems, a synthetic aperture radar, an emitter-locating system and a laser designator to the Barracuda. In that case, its sensor suite will match that planned for the aborted J-UCAS entrants. The Neuron will carry an imaging sensor and a laser designator, but no radar.