UK Reveals High-Tech Programs in Air, Space, and Propulsion

 - July 19, 2019, 10:30 AM
Reaction Engines released this concept of its hypersonic aircraft.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Royal Air Force (RAF) will invest in hypersonic propulsion, small satellites, and so-called flying wingmen and swarming drones. The R&D programs were announced in front of 40 air force chiefs and military commanders at the Air and Space Power Conference in London.

The two-year hypersonic propulsion contract is worth about £10 million ($12.5 million) to a team comprising BAE Systems, Reaction Engines, and Rolls-Royce. The focus will be on enabling technologies “for increased aircraft performance and capability," according to an RAF statement. To date, Reaction Engines has been the UK leader in hypersonic propulsion with its Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket (Sabre). But the company’s main aim has been to provide power for a satellite-launching spaceplane. BAE Systems made a “strategic investment” in the company in 2015.

Sabre hybrid propulsion engine
Reaction Engines has been working on its Sabre hybrid propulsion engine for 30 years. Testing of the core is due to take place next year. (Photo: Reaction Engines)

An alternative means of launching satellites at lower cost than ground launch is provided by Virgin Orbit, which is developing a Boeing 747 as a launch platform for a rocket. The first drop test was performed last week at 35,000 feet. The RAF is planning to send a test pilot to join this project at the Mojave Space Port, California.

Virgin Orbit drop test
Virgin Orbit performed its first drop test of a satellite-launching rocket earlier this month. (Photo: Virgin Orbit)

British Defence Minister Penny Mordaunt announced a £30 million ($37.5 million) investment in a small-satellite demonstrator that will be launched within a year. This would lead to a small-satellite constellation for multiple purposes. This project would be supported by a transatlantic team of UK and U.S. defense personnel named Team ARTEMIS. A number of U.S. commercial companies are already offering small-satellite constellations, but an earlier military program run by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was an expensive failure.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Hiller, Chief of the Air Staff, said, “ARTEMIS gives us the opportunity to grow skills, understand the military relevance of small satellites, and consider how to get space-based information to the warfighter in operationally relevant timelines.” Mordaunt said that the new program “may eventually see live high-resolution video beamed directly into the cockpit of our aircraft, providing pilots with unprecedented levels of battle awareness.”

The MoD has already part-funded a small satellite named Carbonite 2, which has been providing color video surveillance imagery from space. The partner is British company Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), which claims to be the world leader in small satellites. AIN understands that SSTL will participate in Team ARTEMIS.

Hillier confirmed that a project named LANCA (Light Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft) had reached the feasibility phase. The aim is to develop an unmanned flying wingman “to enhance the capability of our existing and future fast jet aircraft,” Hiller added. The MoD’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) sought proposals for this £4.5 million ($5.6 million) project last year, at which time it expected the proposals to be delivered by the end of last year and to select up to three bidders. The project was open to small and medium enterprises and academia as well as aerospace majors, and the aim was to seek “a significant reduction in cost and development time compared to traditional combat air systems.”

The RCO has also been working on swarming drones. “The results thus far are looking pretty impressive,” said Hillier. Earlier this year, a £2.5 million contract was given to a consortium led by Blue Bear Systems Research. He said that No. 216 Squadron would be re-formed “to bring this capability to the front line by 2026.” He later told journalists attending the conference that this was an incremental acquisition from a range of providers since there was already a lot of drone technology to harness. He was hoping to develop an initial capability to deploy “within a year.”