Farnborough Air Show

Mantis prays, and waits for Europe to bite

 - July 15, 2010, 4:10 AM

Although developed to help answer the UK’s surveillance requirements, the BAE Systems Mantis unmanned air vehicle technology demonstrator has become the focus of wider interest from elsewhere in Europe. The UAV is seen now as a potential platform to answer the time-critical requirements of France and Italy, as well as the UK itself, and will inevitably draw interest from other nations such as Germany and Spain.

All these nations have requirements for deep and persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability, which is required sooner rather than later. The Mantis faces a number of challengers in this field: the General Atomics Predator B/Reaper, already operated by the UK and Italy,
and selected by Germany for an interim capability; the Israel Aerospace Industries Heron TP that is being touted by a Dassault/Indra/Thales/IAI consortium to fill the French and Spanish requirements; and the EADS Talarion. The latter offers a highly capable all-European solution, but is not expected to be ready for service until 2018 at the earliest.

That is seen as too late for France, in particular, which requires a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV in service around 2015. Such a timescale fits well with the UK schedule, although that may be altered by the new British government’s forthcoming strategic defense and security review, which is widely expected to result in a significant cut in defense spending. Currently the UK’s Scavenger program envisions a deep persistent ISTAR asset being selected in 2012 and entering service in 2015-18. The Scavenger is part of the UK MoD’s wider Solomon ISTAR program (formerly Dabinett), which also encompasses other intelligence-gathering disciplines such as satellites.

A few weeks ago the UK and French defense ministries launched a feasibility study for an Anglo-French high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAV solution, with the Mantis as a possible platform. Dassault would lead the French side in a partnership with BAE Systems. Italy is also studying the Mantis, with Finmeccanica as the most likely industry partner. The feasibility report is due to be published in the third quarter.

In the meantime, the Mantis demonstrator is back at Warton after its successful Spiral 1 flight test campaign at Woomera in Australia. This began with a first flight on October 21 last year, and involved five mission-representative flights. They included the ability of the system to cue the operator to pre-set targets, area surveillance and night operations. A quick turnaround was also performed, returning the Mantis to the air in around 30 minutes.

As well as the L-3 Wescam MX-20 EO/IR primary sensor, the Mantis was fitted with BAE Systems’ imagery collection and exploitation (ICE) II system. The system incorporates automatic target recognition algorithms that identify targets and automatically cross-cue the main sensors for more detailed imagery.

With the Mantis back at Warton, BAE Systems is rebuilding the demonstrator as a systems development testbed. Spiral 1 tests are considered complete, bringing to an end the advanced concept and technology demonstrator phase, which was funded jointly by industry and the UK Ministry of Defence, as part of the government’s Operational Unmanned Aerial System program. Spiral 2 has yet to be defined but will concentrate primarily on expanded ISTAR capability, and is likely to include a Selex Galileo SAR/GMTI radar. The nature of the next Spiral development is likely to be dependent on the outcome of the current feasibility studies.