The Neuron UCAV demonstrator was officially unveiled last week inside a hangar at Istres airbase in southern France to representatives of the six governments funding the €400 million ($520.4 million) effort. France, Italy and Sweden each produced UCAV-like flying prototypes before joining Greece, Switzerland and Spain on the Neuron project in 2006. Dassault Aviation has been the prime contractor for the five-year development, with contributions from Alenia, Saab, HAI, Ruag and EADS-CASA. France has contributed 50 percent of the budget.
Dassault said that engine runs will start soon, followed by a first flight in mid-2012. The all-British Taranis UCAV demonstrator is also due to fly this year. Both air vehicles are powered by a single Rolls-Royce Adour turbofan and are designed to demonstrate that European industry has mastered tail-less flight control, stealth, autonomous operation and network integration. The Neuron will also demonstrate air-to-ground weapon firing from an internal bay.
BAE Systems has not revealed the flight-test schedule for Taranis, but the Neuron flight-test program will last two years. What happens after that is unclear, and subject to ongoing political and industrial maneuvering.
The Anglo-French defense agreement commits the two countries to co-development of a Male (medium-altitude, long-endurance) UAV, but not necessarily to a UCAV. Each of the six Neuron industrial partners retains design rights relating to its specific contribution to the project in the event there is no further co-development. Alenia and EADS recently agreed to explore cooperation on Males and UCAVs.
At the Neuron ceremony last week, Dassault chairman and CEO Charles Edelstenne said it is now up to the governments to think about a follow-on program.