If anyone can make UAVs sexy, it must be the Italians. For 30 years, Galileo Avionica’s Meteor division has been building and selling the sleek, jet-powered Mirach target drone. Now the company is turning the drone into a high-subsonic, multi-purpose reconnaissance vehicle that will fly for the first time later this year.
Named in Italian after a bird of prey, the Nibbio solves some problems experienced by slower UAVs during the Balkans and Gulf conflicts, according to business development manager Walter Mancini. Survivability ranked high on the list of problems, especially in the first days of a conflict, as did the UAVs’ inability to operate in bad weather or move quickly to a new area of interest.
Meteor’s Mirach drones have achieved a 98-percent mission reliability rate and fly in service with many countries. The latest 100/5 version was launched in 1998 with an order from Britain’s Royal Navy. That same year, Meteor took on a turnkey contract to provide target services at the NATO firing range on Crete. Meteor became the UAV and simulator business unit of Galileo Avionica in 2001.
Meteor first adapted the Mirach for reconnaissance in 1981, but in this role it has attracted interest outside Italy only recently. The company will demonstrate the Nibbio on the CEL range later this year as part of France’s CARAPAS system demonstration.
Galileo is the main subcontractor to EADS for this effort. At the same time, the Italian armed forces will test the Nibbio in Sardinia.
The Nibbio can launch on its preprogrammed mission from an aircraft, a ship or the ground. It weighs about 900 pounds, travels at Mach 0.85 and can fly for two hours at any height up to 40,000 feet. It carries up to is 150 pounds, and Galileo has developed its own Electro-Optical Surveillance and Tracking System that fits in the nose. It will also carry a small electronic surveillance measures sensor. It uses a narrow-band satellite datalink for sensor relay or for retasking the vehicle in flight.
Obviously, Meteor designed Nibbio for a high-end military requirement. But the company has also developed a less ambitious (and distinctly unsexy) surveillance UAV named Falco, which made its first flight in November 2003. According to Mancini, the Falco stands out from the rest of the drone crowd because of all the attention paid recently to safety and reliability. Civil certification is the main driver, he said, and the Falco will meet the framework regulations approved last year by the Italian CAA, which will allow it to fly in nonsegregated airspace. Galileo is participating in the various pan-European activities to get UAVs accepted by Air Traffic Control as just another type of airplane.