The Airbus Defence and Space Approach to UAVs


2016-06-26  By Guy Martin

Airbus Defence and Space believes the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market is poised for massive growth, and it is seeking to become involved in this sector, through technology like its Zephyr pseudo-satellite.

Jean Pierre Talamoni, Head of Sales and Marketing at Airbus Military Aircraft, said UAVs represent a small portion of defence expenditure but will see the highest growth in the coming years.

Jana Rosenmann, Head of Unmanned Aerial Systems at Airbus Defence and Space, said there is great opportunity in the UAV space but there is also major uncertainty. For instance, different forecasts predict the value of the UAV market to be worth between $2.8 and $17 billion in 2020. One thing for certain is the commercial UAV market overtaking the military market in the near future.

Rosenmann predicts that the global UAV market will rise from around $10.5 billion in 2016 to nearly $18 billion in 2025, with two thirds of that coming from the United States. Medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAVs are predicted to make up the vast majority of market value.

She told media in Germany this week that Airbus is ‘crossing the Rubicon’ and moving into the commercial market and has spent a lot of time engaging with this market.

“Everybody is talking about the civil market, with a focus on small consumer drones, of which thousands are flying around.” She said Airbus is looking to see what strategy to take with regard to the commercial market.

One example of out of the box thinking with regard to UAVs is the Zephyr pseudo satellite, a solar powered aircraft operating in the stratosphere above weather and regular air traffic. Its main applications are surveillance, communications and Internet. So far it has flown 900 hours, including a single flight that lasted 14 days.

The Zephyr S (single tail) has a wingspan of 25 metres, payload of 5 kg and weight of 55 kg but Airbus is working on the larger Zephyr T (twin tail), with a 33 metre wingspan, weight of 140 kg and 20 kg payload. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defence has ordered two for a capability demonstration next year, and is in negotiations for a third.

Rosenmann said she saw enormous UAV potential from the commercial world, with Airbus in negotiations with information technology companies in this regard, with a focus on providing hubs for Internet connectivity, with military contracts following on from those.

At the moment Airbus Defence and Space is leasing Heron I UAVs to the Germany military, which uses them in Afghanistan, will supply the Heron TP to Germany and is working on a future European MALE UAV together with Dassault and Leonardo.

Launch of the development and production programme for the latter is expected in late 2018. Airbus will sign a definition study contract for the European MALE by mid-July, ahead of the commencement of development work on the project in September.

Also referred to as MALE2020, the European MALE RPAS project was launched in May 2014 with the goal of providing an unmanned capability to the armed forces of France, Germany, and Italy, reports IHS Jane’s.

Republished with permission of our partner defenceWeb.

Editor’s Note: To unleash the potential of UAVs in the civil marketplace, it will be crucial to shape a modernized air traffic control system which can indeed handle the challenge.

We will publish a piece shortly on this challenge which is a key part of the roll out in the United States of the next generation system and in Europe with the introduction of SESAR.

The Federal Aviation Administration is facing significant problems with integrating drones into US airspace.

The AP reports that plans for modernizing air traffic control can’t cover the unique challenges posed by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), given that they were made years before drones were used for more than military missions.

“It’s becoming painfully apparent that in order to get [drones] in there, there is going to have to be a fair amount of accommodation, at least in the beginning,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative Chris Stephenson is quoted as saying.

That’s going to add yet another set of goals for NextGen, an FAA program that promises to create a nationwide satellite-based location tracking system, provide better tools for sharing information, and update aging technology.

Launched in 2004, NextGen has made progress on these projects, but it’s also been consistently over budget and behind schedule. And large drones — which are currently mostly used for surveillance but could also carry commercial cargo or even wireless internet signals — throw a wrench in its current plans. “We didn’t understand the magnitude to which [drones] would be an oncoming tidal wave, something that must be dealt with, and quickly,” says NextGen administrator Ed Bolton.

Among other things, the AP says NextGen’s planned computer system can’t handle the complex flight plans of drones that stay in the air for days, weeks, or someday years (though super-long-range craft like the Facebook “internet drone” shown above would likely fly above normal airspace.)

Right now, they move slower than commercial planes, creating the risk of an aerial traffic jam. And that’s leaving aside the whole problem of creating a certification system comparable to the one for manned planes and their pilots.

The situation may be brighter for the drones people are actually worried about right now: small machines that fly under 400 feet, like existing aerial photography craft and Amazon’s proposed fleet of octocopters.

The FAA currently bans most commercial use of these drones, although many companies have flouted that rule with mixed results. But hobbyists can already fly them in unpopulated areas, and the FAA is supposed to have rules for businesses in place by 2015; it’s currently approved some limited use.

The agency, once again, appears behind schedule and potentially likely to miss the deadlinedue to problems figuring out drone certification procedures and making sure they’re able to sense and avoid other aircraft.

Earlier this month, NASA said it was working on an automated air traffic control system for drones that fly around 400 to 500 feet. Even with these problems unresolved, though, the FAA is much closer to putting small commercial UAVs in the air than larger, high-flying ones.

Airbus Defence and Space is a key player in SESAR and should be able to inform its UAV efforts of progress in the ATC domain.

Airbus is the third largest contributor to SESAR – bringing airborne operational and technical expertise to the programme, and focusing efforts on the definition and validation of concepts that require interaction between air and ground operators and systems.