Amid calls for collaboration, UCAV efforts split in three

 - July 2, 2008, 12:01 PM

While European governments preach greater collaboration in defense research and development, three competing programs for uninhabited combat air vehicles (UCAVs) have been officially funded. Yet the aim of all three is to preserve the European high-technology base and develop important capabilities such as low-observability and autonomous control, independent of the U.S.

The Neuron project is avowedly pan-European, led by France and including Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. The UK and Germany declined to join. The UK is going it alone with Taranis, while Germany has struggled to develop European partnerships for its Advanced and Agile projects.

NeuronThe official presentation of the name underlines the objective of the Neuron project to develop “strategic technologies that the U.S. is mastering but that will never be transferred to Europe.” The five-year development was launched in 2006 and is to produce a single air vehicle to fly in 2011. France is providing half of the $616 million budget, and Dassault is the prime contractor and design authority. But there are key roles for five more European aerospace companies.

One of the main objectives is to prove that 3-D digital modeling and a single configuration management database, combined with modern communications technology, can enable efficient industrial collaboration across Europe.

Alenia, Dassault and Saab are bringing their previous experience in flying experimental unmanned vehicles–respectively, the Sky-X, AVE C/D and Sharc/Filur.
These projects were funded nationally and have given their designers valuable experience in, for example, flight control of tail-less vehicles. According to Saab’s Mats Ohlson, one of the three deputy program directors in the Neuron project, the industrial partners have carefully agreed to the intellectual property rights. “What we do together is owned collectively. What we do separately is retained separately,” he explained.

But the senior vice president for military cooperation at Dassault offered a somewhat different emphasis. “The intention is to create niches of competitiveness, not six manufacturers each capable of doing a UCAV,” Benoit Dassaugey told AIN. “We’ve developed an innovative way of cooperating,” he added.

The design phase started last summer, after the initial specification was revised to meet the cost objectives. “It’s easy to build a stealth aircraft, but not so easy to build an affordable one,” Ohlson commented. Still, seven of the 12 key technology roadmaps for the Neuron involve low observables, according to Thierry Prunier, Ohlson’s counterpart at Dassault. These include advanced composite skins, intake shaping and treatment, exhaust masking and cooling, antennas, sensor apertures and landing gear doors.

Saab is leading the exhaust masking work, working with Volvo Flygmotor, which is a key Level-2 subcontractor. Others include Galileo Avionica, providing the electro-optical target recognition sensor, and Thales, providing the VHF/UHF communications.

The Neuron has evolved from a twin-sweep, twin-engine design into a sharply swept arrow, almost 33 feet long with a wingspan of 41. It will be powered by a single Rolls-Royce Adour and will include other off-the-shelf items, such as the main and nose landing gear (from the Dassault Falcon 900 and Mirage 2000, respectively). The maximum takeoff weight is pegged at 13,227 pounds and the maximum speed Mach 0.8.

One goal of the project is to demonstrate the stealthy release and air-to-ground targeting of Mk 82 and GBU-12 weapons from the Neuron’s two internal payload bays. Another is “the adaptive mission-guided situation-sensitive and event-driven autonomous self-management of the vehicle and mission.” But development of new sensors, weapons or powerplants is not on the agenda.

The flight-test program in 2011-12 will start at Istres, France, with four months of basic handling followed by ground testing for stealth. More flights will follow in Sweden focusing on stealth and autonomy before the Neuron moves to Italy for weapons trials in an operational scenario. However, to save money, these tests will not include Link 16 datalinks or satellite communications, although there is room in the aircraft for both.

The UK’s Taranis
The British believe they are leading the UCAV technology race in Europe. The government in London has openly identified “the opportunity to develop a competitive edge in a potentially lucrative market.” In December 2006, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) awarded a $183 million contract to develop the Taranis UCAV demonstrator to a consortium led by BAE Systems and comprising QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Smiths Aerospace (now GE Aviation Systems). These companies are contributing a further $59 million.

Before the Taranis project was started, BAE had demonstrated a serious grasp of tail-less flight and autonomous control in 2003 by secretly flying the Raven and Herti unmanned vehicles in Australia. The Raven was a small UCAV-type design and the Herti a more pedestrian platform based on a motor glider. The company mostly funded these risk-reduction efforts, but the Raven design also benefited from stealth knowledge gained from the Nightjar program, which was jointly funded by BAE and the MoD.

An awkward question dogging the British UCAV effort is the extent to which it is independent of the U.S. In 2005, the MoD agreed to contribute $100 million to the U.S.

J-UCAS program and sent representatives to the program office to learn about the costs of manufacturing and operating UCAVs, their technological feasibility and concepts of operation. The J-UCAS program was subsequently restructured,
but the MoD still has two people following the UCAS-D program at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. This transatlantic relationship even has a name–Project Churchill–and it is to continue until 2010.

The MoD carefully noted that Project Churchill does not include “technology development or transfer.” An MoD official told AIN that the UK “would have difficulty with that because of the ITARs [U.S. International Trade in Arms Regulations].” Chris Allam, the project director at BAE Systems, said the Taranis has “a deliberate UK focus to produce a sovereign capability.” It had been a difficult decision for the UK, he added.

However, Benoit Dassaugey of Dassault told AIN that when his company
approached the British to discuss the possibility of cooperating on the pan-European Neuron project, “They were not able to discuss low observables with us because they had signed an exclusive agreement with the U.S.”

Compared with the Neuron, very little hard information about the Taranis air vehicle has been made public officially. It has a “bat-wing” configuration, similar to that of its Raven predecessor, according to Allam. Compared with the Neuron and other UCAVs, there are subtle differences in the configuration, he added. The Taranis will have an mtow of about 17,600 pounds, according to reports, making it approximately the same size as a Hawk jet trainer.

Neither BAE nor Rolls-Royce will confirm that the Taranis is powered by an Adour Mk951 turbofan–the same as the latest Hawks. As in any stealthy design, great attention is being paid to the engine/airframe integration.

There are a number of second-tier suppliers in the UK, plus BAE Australia, which is providing flight control technology. As with the Neuron, no new sensors are being developed specifically for the Taranis, but BAE has done a lot of work on surveillance concepts and technology in connection with the Herti UAV, which is also applicable to the Taranis. For instance, Allam said the Taranis would transmit high-resolution still images, rather than full-motion video (FMV). “Especially when you are flying deep behind enemy lines, you might not enjoy the bandwidth for FMV,” he said.

The design of the Taranis was frozen in June 2007 and assembly of major components began early this year at BAE’s Warton facility. “We’re making fast progress,” said Allam. The power-on ground trials are scheduled to take place at Warton starting early next year, leading to a first flight in 2010–probably on the Woomera test range in Australia where the Raven was flown.

According to Allam, the Taranis will drop no weapons during the flight trials, although there is enough volume in the structure for a weapons bay. “Our focus is elsewhere,” he explained. “We are now incorporating the work that QinetiQ has done on clever autonomy and communications,” he added.

Last year, QinetiQ ran a flight trial during which a pilot in a Tornado interceptor controlled a BAE 111 airliner acting as a surrogate UAV plus three “synthetic” UAVs as they searched for a simulated Scud missile target.

German UCAV
Like BAE, the German part of EADS Military Aircraft Systems developed
a flying proof-of-concept small UCAV in secret and without collaboration. When EADS finally revealed the Barracuda, the company said it proved that it is “able to independently develop and test a demonstrator for future agile, autonomous and network-capable unmanned mission systems.”

But four months after the sole Barracuda first flew in Spain, it crashed in September 2006, the result of a software failure. Meanwhile, EADS officials sought partners and said the Barracuda project was aimed at producing a reconnaissance vehicle rather than one dedicated to combat, though the air vehicle had obvious potential for both missions. No partners were forthcoming.

So in 2007, EADS developed and showed its concept of a modular “Advanced UAV,” obviously less stealthy than the Barracuda, with different configurations for loitering, high-altitude surveillance and low-altitude flight over enemy territory. The German government sought to involve France and Spain in this project, since all three countries had stated requirements for a medium-altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV for reconnaissance.

Last December, EADS announced that the three countries had agreed to fund a
15-month risk reduction study, led by Germany. Each country is providing ?21 billion ($32.3 billion). An EADS spokesman told AIN that the company’s military air business units in all three countries were contributing to the study. Also involved, and studying a radar sensor, are the EADS Defence Electronics business unit, plus Thales of France and Indra of Spain.

However, the Barracuda is not dead. Last December, EADS also revealed that it is leading a research-and-technology program funded by the German defense ministry for an “agile UAV within network-centric environments [NCE].” Finland had agreed to participate and other European nations, “such as Switzerland,” were also welcome to join.

The Agile UAV-NCE project will last until 2013, will cost ?43 billion ($66.2 billion), and will include flight trials of reconnaissance and sensor-to-shooter missions. An EADS spokesman told AIN that this UAV “would look like the Barracuda.”  

Mats Ohlson and Chris Allam spoke at the UCAV Conference organized annually in London by IQPC. See www.defenceiq. com for further details.–Ed.