Farnborough Air Show

Saab Keeps Hand in Unmanned Systems

 - July 8, 2016, 2:00 AM
UMS Skeldar featured a scale model of the Skeldar V-200 at the Xponential 2016 conference in New Orleans in May.

Orders that Saab landed in 2013 to supply Gripen NG fighters to Sweden and Brazil caused the manufacturer to divert resources from—but not abandon—its interest in unmanned aircraft. Saab (Outdoor Exhibition 14) retains a 47-percent ownership stake in the fledgling UMS Skeldar joint venture, a company formed around its Skeldar V-200 tactical unmanned helicopter.

Announced in December, UMS Skeldar offers the 518-pound mtow V-200 and a mix of smaller fixed- and rotary-wing unmanned aircraft developed by UMS Aero Group of Switzerland. Alternative Capital Management of Zurich backs UMS Aero and has 53-percent ownership and three of the five seats on the UMS Skeldar board of directors, with Saab claiming two. The joint venture’s headquarters are in Möhlin, Switzerland; it opened a new production facility in Linköping, Sweden, in March.

A participant in the Dassault Aviation-led Neuron program to build an unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator, Saab has an abiding interest in unmanned aircraft technology. The Swedish manufacturer developed the current version of the Skeldar tactical helicopter around 2011 and provided it to the Spanish navy under a service contract in 2013. But orders that year for the new Gripen E/F from Brazil and Sweden created a “resource issue,” said Carl Foucard, who previously worked for Saab before leaving to become UMS Skeldar head of sales and deputy head of business development.

“There was an executive board decision from Saab that all resources had to go into these two contracts,” Foucard told AIN. “We saw that it’s difficult to have a small product [the Skeldar] within a company where you have to focus on these enormous contracts. Everyone realized after a while that this is not a good set-up; we need to spin it off into another company.”

Saab still wanted to retain its expertise in unmanned aircraft for possible future developments. “They want to have that knowledge within the company if they [decide] to develop an unmanned group in the future,” Foucard explained. “But they don’t want to invest heavily in keeping knowledge without a product.” Forming UMS Skeldar “was a good way to keep the knowledge partly owned by the company so that knowledge doesn’t get lost,” he added.

The Linköping facility had 14 full-time employees and occupied half of the available factory building, Foucard said. It accommodated two assembly lines, with room for growth to four lines. “Following the landmark agreement between UMS Aero and Saab, it made complete sense for UMS Skeldar to open this facility under its own brand, not only because of the ease by which we are able to integrate the manufacturing expertise from Saab for the Skeldar, but also to add the capability of organizing demonstration flights close by,” said CEO Jakob Baumann, a former two-star general with the Swiss armedforces, at the opening.

The V-200 was prominently displayed at the UMS Skeldar exhibit at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (Auvsi) Xponential conference in New Orleans in May. The company was focused not on the hard-to-penetrate U.S. market, but on Latin America as a promising region for its unmanned aircraft line. It had earlier appeared at the Singapore Airshow in February and at the Defence Services Asia exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in April, as southeast Asia is another of the company’s target markets.

At the time of the Xponential conference, the V-200 was contending for a Royal Australian Navy requirement for an unmanned rotary-wing aircraft to perform maritime and littoral intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The RAN has a future frigate program and “it’s clear from the customer, they want to have drones on those frigates,” said Foucard, who placed the cost of a Skeldar system with two helicopters, basic sensors and a ground station at €4 million ($4.5 million). The Skeldar faced competition from the Schiebel Camcopter S-100 and the considerably larger Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout.

UMS Skeldar had also demonstrated the V-200 for a utility company in Norway, and at Xponential UMS announced that operator Nordic Unmanned had received Europe’s first national license to use the helicopter commercially, following Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority approval.

In addition to the V-200, the company also provided the F-330, a 52-pound, catapult-launched fixed-wing aircraft with eight hours’ endurance, to the Indonesian Army and Singaporean police. It lists the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments Company as a “strategic partner” and reported a further service contract in UAE.

The F-330, the larger F-720 fixed-wing aircraft (551 pounds) and the 330-pound mtow R-350 unmanned helicopter offer a progression in capability to the Skeldar V-200 for customers who may not have a wealth of experience in using unmanned aircraft. “A cheaper fixed-wing such as the F-330 is a good, cheap stepping stone to a platform with more capability,” said Foucard. “We see customers who could have combinations of fixed- and rotary-wing platforms,” he added.