UAV updates highlighted on European front

July 26, 2018  - By

After a couple of good hours of progress, we suddenly ran up against a massive “tail-back” — as the English call road-blocks — on the A303. We eventually crawled along further and discovered that all the rubber-neckers were slowing to grab a glimpse of Stonehenge, which you can see on the left, not far from the road. A little further on I saw a sign for Farnborough and thought that its surely around this time of year for that huge aerospace show known as the Farnborough International Airshow. So when I arrived home after almost three email-less weeks, it was not surprising that my inbox was crammed with lots of European aerospace news.

SkyGuardian MQ-9B

General Atomics (GA-ASI) seems to have come out tops in UAV public relations, flying its MQ-9B company-owned SkyGuardian from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Royal Air Force (RAF) Fairford in Gloucestershire, U.K. on July 10-11 — that’s a 3,760 nautical mile flight in a fraction just over 24 hours. The RAF has operated the MQ-9 Reaper for over 10 years and the RAF configuration of the MQ-9B will apparently be called PROTECTOR RG Mk1. It just so happens that the RAF is celebrating its 100-year anniversary, so GA-ASI took the opportunity to drop in and say hello at a much smaller airshow at Fairford July 13-15.

Then they announced last week at Farnborough that GA-ASI had been selected to provide UAS to the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) following consideration by the Ministry of Defence for the Netherlands. Doesn’t sound exactly like a contract yet, but its close enough to say that the Netherlands will take delivery of the Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper Medium Altitude, Long-endurance UAS. They also reminded us that the Spanish Air Force is to take delivery of MQ-9 systems in 2019.

From a SatNav point of view, we might also be interested that the GPS receiver on this UAV has also been upgraded to add Galileo signal capability — a requirement for what seems to be an expanding number of government forces in Europe. No luck yet in securing better information from GA-ASI about this upgrade, but Farnborough has likely kept them hopping, so hopefully more news later.

Zephyr S High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite UAV

Photo: Airbus

Fresh on the heels of taking on the Canadian Bombardier C-Series program (now the Airbus A-220) and closing the first deal with JetBlue for 60 of these aircraft, Airbus has committed to production of the Zephyr S HAPS (High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite) solar–electric, stratospheric UAV.

Zephyr has an 82-ft. wingspan and is designed to operate on solar power in the stratosphere at an altitude of around 13 miles emulating equivalent services provided by satellite. This is well above clouds, the jet stream and the ozone layer, and importantly well away above regular air traffic. Airbus anticipates the drone flying for up to 100 days without landing (its currently record is 14 days) and to travel up to 1,000 nautical miles per day. It weighs 165 pounds, but can support a payload up to five times its own weight.

The Zephyr aircraft began its maiden flight in Arizona a few days ago — the “qualification flight” is being supported by both the U.K. and U.S. governments — and the U.K. Ministry of Defence is the launch customer for Zephyr. The aircraft has so far logged around 1,000 hours total flight time. The test flight will conclude once engineering objectives have been met. Other solar-cell powered aircraft have struggled with landing or take off due to the large wing, light weight and hence stability under wind gusts, so several projects have not progressed past the R&D stage. Airbus & RAF’s commitment to production indicates their faith in the aircraft design.

Staying with the U.K. theme, the Goodwood Estate in Chichester, England — famous for the Goodwood car racing circuit — has recently hosted the Goodwood Festival of Speed, which apparently included drone racing. And at the same time, a Guinness World Record drone speed record was established.

Wingcopter XBR

The Wingcopter XBR is a tilt-rotor UAV with two lift props and two horizontal velocity props, and the drone flown by teenage drone racer Luke Bannister reached an average of 240.6kmph (~150m/h) over a Goodwood 100 meter track, flying over the measured track in both directions to account for wind. This set the world record for the fastest ground speed by a “remote-controlled tilt-rotor aircraft.” A previous record of 179.6 mph has been achieved by a quadcopter drone rather than a tilt-rotor UAV like the Wingcopter, but there is apparently more drag with type of drone, so its classified as a different category of UAV.

Northrop Grumman Triton High Altitude UAV

Northrop Grumman Triton High Altitude UAV. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman Triton High Altitude UAV. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman released a statement at Farnborough on their continuing discussions with Germany towards the sale of its high-altitude Triton MQ-4C unmanned surveillance drone, but apparently a lot of work still remains. In April the U.S. State Dept. authorized the sale of up to four drones worth up to $2.5 billion, and the German government has since been working closely with the US Navy towards a deal.

People may recall the previous cancellation of the “Eurohawk” program back in 2013 — under which Germany had planned to buy a version of Northrop’s Global Hawk drone — after escalating estimated costs for civil certification of the vehicle hit 600 million euros ($702 million) — not a minor task in any way.Subsequently, Northrop and Airbus Defense and Space have teamed up on a new ‘Pegasus’ program, which will add UAVs to Germany’s surveillance capabilities — drones flying autonomously as high as 60,000 feet to gather a wide array of intelligence data.

The German government plans to buy three of the drones, equipped with sensors and a mission system now to be engineered by Airbus. Preparations for certifying equipment to enable the drones to operate in civil airspace are moving more smoothly this time, but with deliveries to only start in 2025. Northrop developed the Triton, a marine-based variant of the Global Hawk, under a U.S. Navy contract awarded in 2008. And Australia last month said it plans to buy six Triton aircraft for maritime patrol, initially expected to cost A$1.4 billion ($1 billion U.S.).

So, lots of military drone stuff this month — not unusual given the nature of the Farnborough U.K. airshow, even though Boeing and Airbus also use the show to one-up each other’s announcements of commercial aircraft contracts and options. Lots of good news for General Atomics, not so much yet for Northrop Grumman, and some light relief with high speed drone records at Goodwood. Back to more North American UAV news hopefully next month.