Last weekend BAE Systems concluded the first flight trial campaign of its Mantis UAV, the world’s first twin-engine autonomous large UAV. Although the UK Ministry of Defence remains coy about details, AIN understands that the first flight was on October 21, and that the aircraft flew five times. With initial flight trials successfully completed, the Mantis industrial team and the UK Ministry of Defence are discussing what technology and capabilities should be included in the next iteration.
Formally launched on July 14 last year, Mantis is a joint MoD/industry-funded technology demonstration program, with BAE Systems as lead contractor. Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ, GE Aviation, Meggitt and Selex Galileo are also key members of the team. The stated aim of the program is to show the capabilities that are possible with this class of vehicle, and to aid the MoD in the formulation of its future autonomous vehicle requirements. Between the lines, however, it is clear that Mantis could form the basis of an operational vehicle, and the twin-engine configuration is certainly attractive in terms of certification for operations in regular airspace.
For BAE Systems and its partners, Mantis represents an opportunity to employ advanced aircraft systems and construction techniques. It is BAE’s first all-electric aircraft, with no hydraulic systems. Most of the airframe is built from advanced composites produced in a low-cost, low-temperature process, rather than the expensive, high-temperature autoclaves normally used for such materials.
Mantis is proceeding on a spiral development path. Funding is being provided in what Andy Wilson, BAE Systems’ business development director for autonomous systems, describes as “bite-sized chunks, to keep within the limits of affordability.” Having flown the Spiral 1 aircraft, which is in a baseline deep-persistent ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance) configuration, the UK MoD is now examining what should form Spiral 2 of the demonstration. “The MoD wants to move quickly,” added Wilson, “but they still have to decide what the next step should be.” Given that the whole project moved from concept to flight in just 19 months, the period between Spiral 2 go-ahead and flight demonstrations is expected to be short thanks to BAE Systems’ rapid engineering capabilities.
In Spiral 1 the Mantis has turreted EO/IR sensors under the nose and central fuselage, but it also has a common radar station. No radar has been specified at present, and there is still debate about what class of sensor should be demonstrated in coming spirals. Further down the line it is expected that Mantis will validate its armed capability, for which six pylons are mounted on the wings for the carriage of weapons. Mantis has two satellite communications links: a primary in the forward fuselage hump and a secondary in the fin-tip fairing.
For its first flight Mantis was powered by two Rolls-Royce 250 turboprops. However, the engine pylons of the vehicle have been designed to cater for varying powerplants. It would be a relatively simple process to re-engine the aircraft with jet propulsion if that was required.
Mantis uses the same ground control infrastructure as BAE Systems’ other principal unmanned project, the smaller Herti. Several Hertis are now flying, and a small initial production batch has been built. The first production machine (and two flight test vehicles) was involved in BAE’s recent flight test campaign in Australia, following taxi trials at Walney Island airfield in the UK.
Herti continues to be demonstrated to the UK MoD, and is believed to have returned to Afghanistan for operational trials, as well as participation in recent multi-national exercises in which it provided time-sensitive ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance). BAE Systems has adopted a new principal sensor for the craft in the form of the FLIR Systems Polytech Cobalt 350 EO/IR turret from Sweden, which provides excellent live target tracking capability, as well as stills imagery. The use of change detection algorithms in the hunt for improvised explosive devices is understood to be one key area of Herti evaluation.
With a standard payload Herti has a 25,000-foot ceiling and a 20-hour endurance. Alternatively, it can mount a four-hour patrol at a 1,000-kilometer radius. As with Mantis, it can fly its missions without any operator intervention, sending back a “heartbeat” by Iridium satellite link to reassure ground control that it is still performing as planned.