Europe’s first unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) has flown. The Neuron technology demonstrator took off from the Dassault test base at Istres, France, at dawn on December 1. Dassault is the prime contractor, teamed with Alenia Aermacchi (Italy); EADS-CASA (Spain); Hellenic Aerospace Industries (Greece); Ruag (Switzerland); Saab (Sweden) and Thales (France). France has contributed 50 percent of the budget.
Alenia Aermacchi chief executive officer Giuseppe Giordo said the first flight was “an extremely important achievement...the development and demonstration of unmanned aircraft capable of performing complex missions autonomously...are the new frontier of flight.” Alenia is responsible for the electrical and air data systems, low observable components and the smart integrated weapon bay. Saab noted that the Neuron is the first large-size stealth platform designed in Europe. The Swedish company had gained experience in high-technology, cost-efficient design and production methods, said Mats Palmberg, vice president future products. Saab designed and produced the fuselage, and has also been responsible for avionics, the fuel system and critical parts of the ground station.
The Neuron’s first flight took place about five months later than the revised schedule that the industrial partners set in 2010, four years after the program was launched. Flight tests will continue at Istres until 2014, when the single air vehicle will be transferred to Vidsel, Sweden, for operational trials. These will be followed by stealth measurement and weapons trails at the Perdadesfogu range in Italy.
Unlike the other UCAV technology demonstrator in Europe—the BAE Systems Taranis—the Neuron program includes the testing of an EO/IR sensor and the dropping of weapons. The Taranis was unveiled by BAE Systems in July 2010, 18 months before the Neuron was shown in complete form. At that time, a first flight in 2011 was predicted. More recently, BAE Systems said that the Taranis would fly in early 2013.