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Legally stepping into civilian airspace: what may at first sight seem to be a contradiction, putting a pilot into an unmanned aircraft can make sense if an explanation is given. This is what Rheinmetall and Diamond aircraft have done at the recent Idex exhibition in Abu Dhabi.

Perhaps for the first time in open civilian airspace, Rheinmetall performed a morning and an afternoon drone flight over the skies of Idex, with anyone able to monitor the performance at the ground station within the exhibition grounds. Key to this performance is the Opale, described as an << optional pilot surveillance and reconnaissance system >> and which is basically a motor glider-like DA42 Twin Star manufactured by Diamond at the Wiener Neustadt airfield (incidentally, this is where the Schiebel factory is also based), fully equipped with a Garmin G1000 flight deck, sensor and datalink. The reason why this was made possible is that the aircraft, although flying like a drone, had a pilot on board. The idea behind the Opale is to be able to perform recce missions in a 'manned mode', but should the aircraft approach a conflict zone (which civilian aircraft tactfully avoid overflying in any case) the Opale can be landed, allowing its pilot to debark, and the aircraft can then takeoff again and fly into troubled areas and stay aloft for 18 hours. Normally a four-seat aircraft, the Diamond is powered by two 135-horsepower Thielert Diesel Centurion 1.7 turbo diesels. Its 8.56-metre-long greyhound-like fuselage sits across a 13.42-metre-span high L/D airfoil wing which gives it a maximum take-off weight of 1.785 tonnes. The Opale can be fitted with a variety of sensors, but in the recent demonstration it carried the nose-mounted gimballed payload used by the Rheinmetall KZO. According to a Rheinmetall spokesman, there are plans to carry out trials with a synthetic aperture radar. Further trials of the Opale are scheduled to take place during Nato exercises in Norway next September.

Same by Proxy

A good idea never comes alone, and pretty much the same philosophy is being followed on the other side of the Atlantic by Proxy Aviation, which announced, on 5 February 2007, that tests aimed at verifying the automatic takeoff and landing capabilities of its own 'optionally piloted' aircraft, the Skywatcher, had been successfully completed on 13 December 2006.

Proxy says that several automatic rake-offs and landings were performed, sans inputs from the ground station, by virtue of the company's Skyforce distributed management system and a flight control system produced by Geneva Aerospace, which also enabled the team to verify << runway centreline tracking, traffic pattern ground tracking, precise touchdown point and proper braking action. >> The automatic take-off and landing tests were sponsored by the US air Force and took place above Yuma, Arizona.

An interesting point is that the Skyforce distributed management system enables one base station to operate and handle several aircraft at the same time, even if tasked with different types of missions. The Skywatcher is based on a tailless 200 hp pusher-prop-engined Velocity general aviation aircraft that can be obtained as a kit, a semi-kit or a factory-build. It is reported as having a 15-hour endurance with a 160-kilo payload. As with the Opale seen above, all manner of payload can be envisaged, including synthetic aperture radar.

Synthetic Aperture

Reference to synthetic aperture radar in the context of the two aforementioned optionally manned flying objects brings about the news that the Lynx II radar developed by General Atomics (in fact originally by Sandia Laboratories before production take-over) and extensively flown by the Predator series will be available for export under a Lynx II E variant. Depending on the export nation, resolution degradations are bound to be imposed by the American Government. Differences in resolutions are not given but all the original system figures are mentioned on General Atomics' web site (, starting with 0.3 to 3.0 metres in stripmap mode and 0.1 to 3.0 metres in spotlight mode, but a high-resolution zoom capability of 0.1 metre (or four inches). The Lynx II is a ruggedised version of the Lynx I but manages the feat of being much lighter while still offering the same performance.

Vertical Matters

In a surprising move, the French procurement agency (DGA) has announced that it had selected Thales to carry on with a study aimed at eventually providing a vertical take-off and landing drone for both the French Army and Navy. The wording of this announcement is somewhat loose, << The objective of this study programme is to define a vertical take-off and landing (Vtol) UAV system to meet the tactical requirements of France's Land Force General Staff (Emat) and Naval High Command (EMM) >>, particularly as the three contenders had hitherto presented concrete candidates (Thales with the Boeing Unmanned Little Bird, Eurocopter with the Vertivision and Sagem with the Bell Eagle Eye). It does indeed sound strange that the DGA should already pick a candidate if the needs are still to be defined.

In a much more clear-cut move in the rotary-wing specialty, it appears that the naval application of the Fire Scout is gaining momentum in the United States with Northrop Grumman announcing that it had received a $16 million contract to deliver another two MQ-8Bs, which will bring the total number of Fire Scouts in the hands of the Navy to nine. The contract includes assisting the Navy in refining the Fire Scout concept of operations. In other words, Northrop Grumman will work closely with the Navy to refine the system description, including core capabilities, and anticipated deployment and employment for the system and other aviation assets aboard the Littoral Combat Ship. Initial operation capability from the latter is, by the way, slated for 2008, this according to Northrop Grumman.

Viper Sting

Still involving Northrop Grumman, but from the blade rather than from the handle this time, the White Sands Missile Range was host to the most recent test of the Hunter drone and Viper Strike weapon system combination, as a series of stationary and moving targets were successfully acquired and destroyed. Northrop Grumman's Viper Strike weapons were guided by the (also Northrop) Hunter drone's laser targeting system. The Hunter acquires its targets with its electro-optical and infrared sensors, reports its findings to the ground station and receives a fire/no-fire command, after which, if fire, it launches the Viper Strike and guides it to the target and then performs battle damage assessment.

Flying Cats

The AeroVironment Aqua Puma has recently and successfully been tested with the Royal Australian Navy. The sea trials also included a feasibility study aimed at exploring the addition of a drone capability for the Navy's new Armidale class of patrol boats.
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Title Annotation:Drone Update
Author:Biass, Eric H.
Publication:Armada International
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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