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Still a steep learning curve: as seen from a wide-angle lens, the drone world is reaching a turning point, probably one that will lead to many others. One thing is clear, though, Europe is finally trying to hammer its own niche in a discipline that has been hitherto led by Israel and the United States.

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Before turning to recent events and developments, there is a further point that might require reflection, and that is the vulnerability of drones to aircraft attack. For obvious reasons, drones have hitherto been regarded as 'more expendable' items than conventional aircraft. However, they have also become increasingly expensive items. One getting lost to an enemy attack in a war zone is bad enough. However, when this happens whilst patrolling one's border, as it did, a few months ago between two nations that were not, strictu sensu, at war (this was well before Georgia and Russia ran into their mid-August crisis) the philosophical question becomes: is one allowed or not to carry out surveillance missions over one's own border area without being punched in the eye? The footage of the Georgian Hermes 450 knocked out by the sky by what appears to be a Russian Mig-29 that can still be seen on Youtube (http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=cMj HbU_22Uo) brings about the question of the legitimacy of border surveillance and self-protection for drones. It goes without saying that the day self-protection systems become more affordable they will provide an attractive option for the male category of drones and upwards, just as they eventually have for military transport fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft--and now for civilian aircraft flying in insecure areas--after having been standard fit on fighter aircraft for many years now.

Ave Neuron

This is no salute to a Roman emperor but the acronym for Aeronefs de Validation Experimentale (Experimental Validation Aircraft), a scaled-down version of what will eventually turn into a full-scale Neuron, itself an experimental combat drone. Although the Ave-D (seen on our title picture) has been carrying out a series of flights since 2004, the aircraft performed its first fully autonomous operation--not merely a flight--on 30 June. This encompassed roll from tarmac parking position, runway alignment, take-off and in-flight manoeuvres, landing and roll back to parking position. This successful demonstration constitutes a major step in the development of the Dassault-led multi-national Neuron programme, for which 'metal cutting' has recently started. Other partners in the programme are Saab (fuselage, avionics and fuel system), Thales (datalink and interfaces), Italy (weapon bay systems and electrics), Eads Casa (wing design), HAI (rear section) and Ruag (wind tunnel tests).

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Drac

Drac is the name of the French Army-configured Tracker three-pod airframe drone. Eads has recently completed the delivery of the first batch of 25 systems to the DGA procurement agency. The systems will then be turned over to the French Army in early 2009 for initial operational experiments and to establish employment doctrine. The Army is expected to order a total of 160 systems to be procured in four batches, the second of which (35 systems) was ordered on 30 June 2008. The eight-kilo Drac aircraft is hand launched, one of its two operators holding it above his head from under its two motor pods. It is 1.4 metres long for a wingspan of 3.4 metres. It has an operational speed of between 60 and 90 km/h and is intended to fly at heights of between 260 to 980 feet above the ground, but its use is restricted to fewer than 15 metres/sec wind speed conditions. A system includes two aircraft, a twin-position ground control station and a tracking aerial.

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Sky-X

To continue on this rare flow of European news, Alenia announced that its Sky-X had performed a series of join-up manoeuvres with a C-27J to simulate sustained aerial refuelling. The tests, intended to fully simulate real refuelling operations, were performed autonomously by the drone, which 'chased' the tanker, lined up with it, approached to within a few metres then returned to base, still autonomously, down to the parking area. In addition, the Sky-X's on-board computer proved the ability to abort manoeuvres and reprogram approach routes.

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Mantis

Rolls-Royce recently announced that it had been selected to provide the powerplants (RB250 turboprops) for the new BAE Systems Mantis demonstrator. Unveiled in the form of a mock-up at the Farnborough Air Show last July (2008), the Mantis is designed for armed operations as evidenced by the missiles and laser-guided bombs hanging under its wings. In a first stage, the twin-engined Mantis will be developed as a demonstrator in partnership with the British Ministry of Defence, Qinetiq, GE Aviation, Selex Galileo and Meggitt, with a maiden flight planned for early 2009. From a systems point of view, it will obviously draw on BAE's experience with the Herti, particularly after the experimental operations carried with the latter in Afghanistan in late 2007. Although the full dimensions and specifications of the Mantis have not been revealed, the armed aircraft has the potential of rubbing wings with the General Atomics Reaper.

Reaper and Sky warrior

Talking of the Reaper and the consequences that its engine manufacturer Thielert being drawn into receivership might have on the programme, a General Atomics official told Armada, << We have made arrangements with them [Thielert] to receive all engines needed for SDD. After that, we will be upgrading to a larger engine (capable of carrying even more firepower), so we are working on alternatives for that >>.

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Also asked to provide additional information as to what the differences were between the Sky Warrior Block I and Block 0 (see Drone Update Warrior Goes to War, page 52, Armada 4/2008), General Atomics explained: basically, the Block 0 has a C-band datalink as opposed to a tactical common datalink (or TCDL, which provides over-the-horizon satellite communications), no weather and lightening sensor nor deicing and weapons capability. In addition it will operate out of General Atomics' own ground control station, not AAI's One System.

Rotary Wings

An event that will undoubtedly increase an already intense interest in its Camcopter S-100 is Schiebel's announcement that the Austrian bird was recently tested carrying a synthetic aperture radar. The test, which involved a Selex Galileo Picosar development radar, took place around Schiebel's plant in Wiener Neustadt, and enabled the operators to actually map the region from altitudes of 3000 ft. Hitherto, the S-100 was essentially an electro-optical sensor drone, but the small size of the Picosar plus the payload capacity of the rotorcraft does not make the S-100 an EO-or-radar platform bur an EO-and-radar mapping tool.

To finish on the radar theme, Northrop Grumman has recently completed the first tests of its Vader radar system, which the manufacturer is developing under contract from Darpa. With an acronym that stands for Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar, the Vader's ultimate platform will be the Sky Warrior, which is being developed by General Atomics (see above). For the time being the Vader is being flown on board Northrop Grumman's PBN Islander test bed aircraft, proving that it could detect vehicle motion on the ground. And here is where the 'vehicle and dismount exploitation" bit of the designation cuts in: amongst the ability to support multiple missions the sensor was designed to detect vehicle dismounts and facilitate the exploitation of the surrounding area, as this Darpa project is actually sponsored by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Office.
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Title Annotation:Drone update
Author:Biass, Eric H.
Publication:Armada International
Date:Oct 1, 2008
Words:1189
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