The flight test campaign in Italy of the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle nEUROn has been successfully concluded with the achievement of all established goals, thus allowing an important step forward for the program.
The nEUROn is the European full-scale technological demonstrator for an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) developed by an industrial team led by Dassault Aviation with the collaboration of Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi, Saab, Airbus Defence and Space, RUAG and HAI.
The aircraft has been deployed at the Italian Air Force’s Decimomannu Air Base, in Sardinia, Italy, where it has fulfilled a series of important operational tests. In particular, the 12 highly sensitive sorties have allowed to verify the characteristics of nEUROn’s combat capability, its low radar-cross section and low infrared signature, during missions flown at different altitudes and flight profiles and against both ground-based and air radar «threats», using in this latter case, an Eurofighter Typhoon.
During the deployment in Italy, the nEUROn has confirmed its already ascertained excellent performance and high operational reliability. Starting this summer, the next testing phase will be run in Sweden, at the Vidsel Air Base, where tests of low observability and use of weapon delivery from the aircraft’s Weapon Bay will be carried out.
The demonstrator’s development activity is an important step in the technology maturation process of the acquired technology, mitigating the level of risk of future investments for UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) in Europe and moving towards systems’ development for operational uses.
The nEUROn is the European full-scale technological demonstrator for an UCAV developed by an industrial team led by Dassault Aviation with the collaboration of Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi, Saab, Airbus Defence and Space, RUAG and HAI
With the completion of its 100th flight in February, the nEUROn Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) technology demonstrator has completed its test campaign in France. Throughout this entire campaign, the nEUROn and associated equipment demonstrated exemplary availability and reliability.
In the first phase, the purpose of the tests was to open the flight envelope (including with weapon bay doors open), to test the electro-optical sensor and to evaluate datalink performance. In the second phase, most flights were dedicated to infrared and electromagnetic signature/detection confrontations against operational systems.
These confrontations, which produced all the expected results, were performed under the authority of the French defense procurement agency DGA (Délégation Générale pour l’Armement). The nEUROn, in full stealth configuration, was operated by Dassault Aviation. Stealth-related data and feedback will serve as a reference for future aircraft projects.
This success demonstrates Dassault Aviation’s know-how in strategic technologies and prime contractorship, as well as its ability to lead programs involving European cooperation. A new chapter now opens for the nEUROn with evaluations that will take place in Italy, then Sweden. This success augurs well for preparing the programs of the future.
For the coming twenty years, the European combat aircraft industry will face three main challenges:
the need to develop strategic technologies;
the necessity to uphold skills of excellences in areas in which the European industry has gained technical competences and fields of excellence;
the goal to provide workload to the European design offices.
Facing such a situation, the French government took the initiative by launching in 2003 a project for a technological demonstrator of an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, elaborated in the frame of a European cooperation scheme. The aim of the nEUROn demonstrator is to provide the European design offices with a project allowing them to develop know-how and to maintain their technological capabilities in the coming years.
This project goes far beyond the theoretical studies that have been conducted until now, as it plans the building and the flight demonstration of an unmanned aircraft. It is also a way to implement an innovative process in terms of management and organisation of a European cooperative programme.
To be fully effective, a single point of decision, the French Defence Procurement Agency, and a single point of implementation, Dassault Aviation company as prime contractor, were settled to manage the nEUROn programme.
The Italian, Swedish, Spanish, Greek and Swiss governments acting together with their related industrial teams, Alenia, SAAB, EADS-CASA, Hellenic Aerospace Industry (HAI) and RUAG, have joined the French initiative.
Aim of the programme
The aim of the nEUROn programme is to demonstrate the maturity and the effectiveness of technical solutions, but not to perform military missions. The main technological challenges addressed during the design phase of the nEUROn are:
the shapes of the air vehicle (aerodynamic, innovative composite structure, and internal weapon bay);
the technologies related to low observability issues;
the insertion of this type of aircraft within the test area;
the high-level algorithms necessary to the development of the automated processes;
as well as the place of the human factor within the mission loop.
The last, but certainly not the least, important technology to be demonstrated is the capability to carry and deliver weapons from an internal bay. Today, European aircraft are designed with external loading capabilities for bombs and missiles. The demonstration goals are the followings:
the performance of an air-to-ground mission based on the detection, localization, and reconnaissance of ground targets in autonomous modes;
the evaluation of the detection results of a stealth platform facing ground or aerial threats, in terms of radar cross section and infrared signature;
the weapon release from an internal bay, with the very stringent tempo constraints of a fast decision loop.
It is clear that through these demonstration missions, the goals are to validate technologies around command and control of an unmanned air vehicle of a size similar to a combat aircraft, with all back-up modes insuring necessary safety and security. The nEUROn system will be network-centric capable.
Related industrial team
Dassault Aviation (France), in addition to being the design authority, takes care of the general design and architecture of the system, the flight control system, the implementation of low observable devices, the final assembly, the systems integration on the «global integration tests rig», the ground tests, and the flight tests.
Alenia Aermacchi (Italy) contributes to the project with a new concept of internal weapon bay (Smart Integrated Weapon Bay – SIWB), an internal EO/IR sensor, the bay doors and their operating mechanisms, the electrical power and distribution system, and the air data system.
SAAB (Sweden) is entrusted with the general design of the main fuselage, the landing gear doors, the avionics and the fuel system.
EADS-CASA (Spain) brings its experience for the wings, the ground station, and the data link integration.
Hellenic Aerospace Industry – HAI (Greece) is responsible for the rear fuselage, the exhaust pipe, and the supply of racks of the «global integration tests rig».
RUAG (Switzerland) is taking care of the low speed wind tunnel tests, and the weapon interfaces between the aircraft and the armaments.
The nEUROn programme was launched in 2003. The main contract was notified to the prime contractor in 2006, the industrial partnership contracts were signed concurrently. The first flight of the technological demonstrator was completed on December 1, 2012, in Istres (France).
The scenarios to be validated through the demonstration flights will be as follows:
insertion in the test range airspace;
air-to-ground subsonic mission;
detection, localisation and autonomous reconnaissance of ground targets without being detected («to see without being seen»);
air-to-surface weapon release from an internal bay.
At the end of 2012, the status of the nEUROn programme is the following:
a) The different parts of the airframe have been manufactured and are delivered to Dassault Aviation in Istres facilities (France):
the main fuselage by SAAB;
the rear fuselage and the exhaust nozzle by HAI;
the wings by EADS-CASA;
the bay doors by Alenia;
the weapon interface by RUAG;
the structural parts contributing to the low observability by Dassault Aviation factories of Argenteuil and Biarritz.
b) The final assembly and the final layout of the piping, electrical wiring and equipment installation, including the engine and the landing gear, were completed in the Dassault Aviation facilities.
c) The software integration in the various electronic equipment was completed, using the «global integration tests rig» in Istres.
d) The ground tests (hydraulics, electrical, fuel), soon to be followed by comprehensive engine tests, took place throughout 2012 with a first flight at the end of 2012.
e) The maiden flight was completed on December 1, 2012. This first sortie proceeded exactly as expected. It lasted twenty-five minutes and validated the vehicle’s main flight parameters. Take-off was entirely automatic and the aircraft reached an altitude of about 2,000 meters/6,561 feet, before turning round, completing the approach and then landing.