Leonardo has revealed that it has been contracted to deliver its infrared search and track (IRST) technology to an undisclosed Far Eastern partner for integration on a new unmanned aerial vehicle development. The so-called Skyward-AB will be provided for integration on a tactical UAV that is nearing the end of its development phase, and two units will be delivered to the aircraft’s manufacturer in 2019, Giorgio Balzarotti, vice president of IRST programs at Leonardo, told AIN at its Nerviano, Italy facility in December.
Balzarotti described the customer as having an “interesting” business model, and it is expected that the UAV will ultimately enter full-scale production. “This is a door opening for us,” he explained. “This is an important customer with an important application.” There are a number of UAV developments under way in Asia in an effort for nations in the region to be able to operate domestically developed and supported systems to compete with a rise in systems being produced by China, and included in this are Singapore, Japan, and South Korea.
Building on its experience in developing the electro-optical passive radar technology for fighters, including the Skyward-G for Saab’s Gripen E and the Pirate for the Eurofighter Typhoon, the company has identified requirements for IRST integration on UAVs, having already delivered it for the pan-European Neuron UCAV effort in 2005. As well as the Far East deal, other potential business areas for Leonardo could include working with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to explore integrating this type of sensor onto its family of medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs. This builds on the relationship the two companies have to offer Leonardo’s Sage ESM system on the MQ-9B SkyGuardian UAV, and Balzarotti said the company has a “will for new business there.”
Another key development for Leonardo’s IRST family of systems is the developmental Multi-Aperture Infrared (MAIR) product, a new distributed aperture variant that uses multiple cameras around an aircraft. Balzarotti said that the company is awaiting a customer for MAIR, and there are a number of acquisition programs ongoing, adding that ground trials have already been carried out. Flight trials onboard a test rotorcraft are expected to take place in 2019, although it will have applications on fixed-wing types as well.
Leonardo is additionally providing IRST for a developmental fighter program in the Far East and, while it cannot confirm which one, it is believed to be South Korea’s KFX program being led by KAI, judging by Leonardo’s 2017 announcement that it has teamed with Hanwha Systems in Korea to develop technologies, including IRST. It will begin delivering the Skyward-K for this program in 2020, Balzarotti says, which will be integrated on the center part of the aircraft’s fuselage, and there is some offset in the deal that includes transfer of hardware development.