Last month Saab announced a partnership with Ultra Electronics’ UK-based Communication and Integrated Systems division covering the joint exploration and exploitation of the market for vertical takeoff and land unmanned aerial vehicle systems (VTUAS). Earlier, in May, Saab announced another partnership with Swiss UAV, which added the Neo and Koax vehicles to create a VTUAS family along with the Saab-developed Skeldar.
Although the Ultra deal has been revealed only recently, the company has been working with Saab for about a year and the first product of this collaboration is a STANAG 4586-compliant common ground control station for the VTUAS family. The ground station also doubles as a simulator for training.
A Flexible Partnership
Ultra has considerable expertise in the areas of payload integration, communications and data links. It is also heavily involved in UK UAS programs and is design authority for the communication systems of the Thales/Elbit Watchkeeper and MBDA Fire Shadow loitering munitions. Indeed, much of the technology being proposed for the VTUAS partnership is leveraged from that developed for the UK’s loitering munition-capability demonstration program.
Saab and Ultra’s partnership is a flexible arrangement offering agile capability. They will assess the subject of workshare and the provenance of technology on a case-by-case basis. One near-certainty is that Saab will remain responsible for the airframe component.
Saab has a proven track record in the unmanned market, having flown Europe’s first fully autonomous UAV in the form of the SHARC demonstrator. In addition to its major involvement in the Dassault-led Neuron program, the OEM is developing a rotary-wing family, which is seen as a niche where there are fewer players and therefore offers healthier market opportunities than the overpopulated fixed-wing UAV world.
For some time Saab (Stand E420) has been working on the Skeldar V-200, which, with a maximum takeoff weight of 441 pounds can lift a 66-pound payload for up to five hours, with a mission radius of 119 miles.
It entered into the deal with Swiss UAV to add two smaller designs, realizing that a family of different sized vehicles–sharing common systems and its autonomous control technology–allows the company to tailor its proposals to a wide range of customer requirements. One, the Neo S-300 is a conventional rotor design with a 165-pound max takeoff weight and 55-pound payload weight. It has a mission radius of 25 miles and endurance of two hours. Smaller still is the Koax X-240, weighing in at 99 pounds with an 18-pound payload capability; it can fly for 90 minutes at up to 19 mile radius. As its name suggests, Koax is a coaxial rotor design and its compact footprint is ideal for urban operations. It is being targeted at law enforcement agencies in particular.
Multiple Roles Envisioned
All three vehicles use a common ground station, can be employed in combination and are powered by heavy fuel engines, a major discriminator in both battlefield and maritime applications.
Ultra and Saab see the top military priority for the VTUAS family as the counter improvised explosive device (C-IED) role. While the companies are coy about what technology would be involved, the rotary-wing UAV’s ability to hover for extended periods is seen as a major attribute in this arena.
Maritime operations are seen as another important role for the VTUAS family, especially for navies that have only rotary-wing experience and for whom the adoption of a fixed-wing UAV would be challenging. Ultra has a long history in the naval sector, while Saab has already conducted evaluation of the Skeldar M naval VTUAS. The company has undertaken significant work in integrating the UAS into existing ship-based C4I systems, negating the need for a separate operating system and console. This work has been performed in relation to a specific program that is moving toward a possible contract.
Other roles for which the VTUAS is seen as ideal are base protection and convoy escort, where again hover capability is paramount. The smaller UAVs, in particular, have many potential civilian applications, which are being pursued by the Saab/Ultra/Swiss UAV team. Both the Neo and Koax have already been sold to civilian agencies by Swiss UAV, and there is much interest from “blue-light” forces, with further customer demonstrations planned.
In August, Saab and Swiss UAV flew all three members of the family together for the first time. The demonstration, conducted in Switzerland, displayed the ease with which they can be operated–a key feature for most potential customers–and the suitability of hover-capable UAVs for roles such as IED detection. “Point and fly” capability was displayed, as was the ability to easily change waypoints in-flight. The UAVs also showed off the short time required to prepare them for flight–less than 10 minutes.
In addition to further customer demonstration campaigns, the team is moving forward with customer adaptation work. It is involved in a competition for a VTUAS requirement for which the Neo and Skeldar are being evaluated. In association with this campaign Saab is flight-testing the Skeldar with a new rotor design that meets a customer’s hot-and-high performance requirements and that has a removable tail for compact storage and transportation.