Working a Way Ahead on European UAVs: The Perspective of Airbus Defence and Space


By Pierre Tran

Paris – Airbus Defence and Space expected to sign a contract for a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle in the first quarter of 2021, a deal the company saw as critical for European arms companies, chief executive Dirk Hoke said Dec. 9.

“Here, we are very confident because last week we got the confirmation from OCCAR (Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en matière d’Armement) that the nations approved to go towards a contract for early next year,” he told journalists on a virtual link to the Manching office, southern Germany.

“So we will be finalizing last steps, securing the budgets and if everything goes right, we expect a contract signature around the first quarter next year,” he said.

Hoke declined to disclose the budget, saying the amount was in line with the French request.

The French armed forces minister, Florence Parly, put public pressure on Airbus DS to meet a budget capped at €7.1 billion ($8.6 billion) after submitting an initial offer worth almost €10 billion, business magazine Challenges reported. That budget will include development.

Challenges contested the government’s financial case, with officials giving figures which sought to make the European drone cost less than the U.S. Reaper or SkyGuardian.

The revised offer was worth €7 billion or a little under, a source close to the deal said. The final agreement could be signed in January or February.

“Our ambition is clearly to remain at the forefront of unmanned flight in Europe,” Jana Rosenmann, head of Airbus DS unmanned aerial systems, said.

Airbus DS submitted its offer in June, prompting “interesting and lively negotiations with OCCAR,” she said.

There were “very respectful discussions. What we have now on the table is a very fair and reasonable offer for both sides,” she said.

The OCCAR program board and the four partners – France, Germany, Italy and Spain – approved Nov. 19 the offer and there was Dec. 2 a formal “go-ahead,” which allowed the nations to start their approval process, she said.

Each nation has its procedure, with the Bundestag parliament for Germany and the Direction Générale de l’Armament procurement office for France working on the deal, the source said.

The industrial partners, Airbus DS, Dassault Aviation, and Leonardo will work on an integrated digital platform in Manching and also on their own national digital platforms, Rosenmann said.

The UAV will be the first military development program to be worked on the basis of the Digital Design  Manufacturing and Services approach, which will succeed a sequential path in the product life cycle, she said. This aimed to allow co-design and development, while considering the consequences for manufacturing and service once the aircraft was in operation.

There will be heavy use of virtual engineering and behavior simulation, to spot inconsistencies in design, seeking to avoid cost and time overruns, she said. The partners were expected to employ just over 7,000 highly skilled engineers.

The planned order was for 20 UAV systems, with three units per system, making a total fleet of 60 drones. First flight would be in 2025, with series production and delivery in 2028. The commercial wing of Airbus in Toulouse helped prepare the offer.

Significantly, there would be a single final assembly line in Germany, as opposed to the multiple final assembly line model of the Eurofighter.

Remote carrier tests

Airbus DS was also working on remote carriers, which will fly with manned aircraft, she said. The company took part in the Nato Timber Express exercise in June, supplying two simulated remote carriers, connected on the Link 16 data network on the ground and pilots flying Tornado, Eurofighter Typhoon, and H-145 helicopters, she said. That allowed high level commands to be made to RCs.

Tests with RCs will continue next year, with sensors, and flying with a Learjet and Tornado, she said. There was also work to integrate with Eurofighter and the future combat air system.

Negotiations were going on for a contract for RCs in phase 1B, after Airbus DS submitted its work in October, she said.

Phase 1B is the next step in design studies on FCAS, intended to fly technology demonstrators in 2026/27.

Airbus was working to mature RC technology up to technology readiness level six, she said.

TRL is a measure of the maturity of technology in an acquisition process.

There was work on small and expendable RCs, as well as larger, conventional units which could serve as loyal wingman, she said. The company was working with MBDA in France and Germany, and a Spanish consortium comprising Cena, GNV, and tecnobit.

The MALE UAV would be integrated with the FCAS system of systems, flying with RCs, the source said.

There would be a first wave of expendable RCs “lighting up” the air defense system, sending back the target information before they were hit.

A second wave might include the UAV, to provide more information, conduct electronic warfare or destroy radars, allowing a third wave of manned aircraft such as the next generation fighter to fly in.

There could be further waves of aircraft.

“We are in a very critical time,” Hoke said. “These are very important projects for European sovereignty and…the European defense industry.”

The featured photo: Jana Rosenmann, head of Airbus DS unmanned aerial systems, briefing reporters at the 2020 Airbus Defence and Space Trade Media Event, December 9, 2020.

Editor’s Note: The Australians are working with Boeing Australia to build a Loyal Wingman UAV, something akin to what the overall goal of the larger UAVs in FCAS might look like.

Recently, a senior Australian RAAF officer involved with the program highlighted a key challenge facing UAVs when operating in integrated airspace with combat aircraft as the key managers of the battlespace.

“The Loyal Wingman is challenged on a range of fronts, including future battlespace management frameworks, communications, and cyber standards, and the development of trusted AI algorithms, as these elements are critical to us being able to trust our Loyal Wingman on combat operations.”

This RAAF officer highlighted the key aspect of trust between the customer and the prime contractor to deliver the kind of development to production process which Rosenmann was talking about.

“Despite the many challenges the trust built between the Royal Australian Air Force and Boeing Australia has grown substantially over the course of the program and has contributed to its success so far.

“This trust is fundamental to the future flexibility needed to adapt this design, should we make further investments. It also provides the foundation for us to adapt quickly, when new designs are needed, and give our primes the ability to foresee needs, before we have fully had the chance to define them. This close partnership is a natural advantage for smaller air forces, which we can make the most of.

“Too much flexibility can also lead to deviating from the goal. And a key design challenge has been maintaining discipline within the program.”