Bright Horizons for Maritime Rotary UAVs

Leonardo's AWHero UAV flying from the Italian FREMM Virginio Fasan during the NATO exercise Ocean 2020.

Published in September 2020 Issue – Naval rotary unmanned aerial vehicles are a reality. From mine countermeasures to ISR and beyond, the number of players in the maritime market is growing.

NATO’s Ocean 2020 Exercise, led by the Italian Navy, was designed to demonstrate how collaborative autonomy between multi-domain unmanned air, surface and sub-surface vehicles could result in information being gathered, and so proving their worth as force multipliers.

Among the objectives of Ocean 2020 was the improvement of maritime situational awareness through the integration of unmanned systems and Intelligence, Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities, as well proving interoperability between heterogeneous systems.

Rotary unmanned aerial vehicle (RUAV) assets used included Leonardo’s SW-4 Solo and AWHero, platforms, as well as Indra’s Pelicano. The information collected was integrated with existing ship based sensors to create a recognised maritime picture (RMP). Other unmanned assets included surface and subsurface vehicles.

Information was shared with the prototype European Maritime Operations Centre (EU MOC) in Brussels as well as among a number of national MOC’s located in Rome and Taranto in Italy, Athens in Greece, Cartagena in Spain and Lisbon in Portugal. Five naval vessels formed the large naval task group including the Italian Naval frigate Virginio Fasan which operated the AW Hero.

Roberto Pretolani, Leonardo’s RUAV marketing manager, speaking from the Fasan during the exercise, explained that the AWHero is a 200kg class system. “It has six hours of endurance (with a 35kg payload) which can operate datalink at 50 nautical miles (nm).” The RUAV Hero being used during the exercise was equipped with a 10 inch gimbal camera with electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR), and an AIS maritime transceiver, which allows it to integrate into the ships combat management system.

According to Leonardo, the AWHero “is the only rotary UAS in its class going through a military certification process. It represents the company’s best technologies combined into one platform: air platform and systems, sensors, datalink, data processing and analysis, and cyber security.

For the maritime ISR mission, it can be fitted with Leonardo’s Gabbiano Ultralight Maritime Radar. Weighing 24kg it operates off 450W through a 28VDC power source.

The AW Hero was partnered with the other Leonardo platform, the AW SW-4 Solo optionally manned helicopter, to achieve multi-source data integration. Being substantially bigger, the SW-4 has a MGW of 3.968lb (1,800kg) and a maximum cruise speed of 111kts (206km/h) with up to a five hour endurance with a 100kg payload. The SW-4 Solo took its first unmanned flight in February 2018.

A Leonardo statement indicated that the AWHERO “accomplished all its four planned missions on board the Italian Navy’s FREMM Virginio Fasan. These including automatic take-off and landing procedures from the vessels’ bridge, and in mission terms it detected, tracked and identified the intruding vessel. Data was also sent to an NH90 helicopter during part of the exercise.

Leonardo’s AWHero conducted four planned missions including detecting, tracking and identifying an unknown vessel.

V-200 Orders Prove Its Worth

UMS Skeldar has met with success in placing its V-200 UAV with international navies as part of a Naval Group/ECA Group inspired ‘toolbox’ approach to mine countermeasures (MCM). The Belgian and Royal Netherlands Navies are equally sharing 12 new mine hunters which will be equipped with a ‘toolbox’ of unmanned options including air, sea and sub-sea unmanned vehicles in an autonomous mine detection and clearance package.

UMS Skeldar’s V-200 rotary UAV has been selected as part of the naval mine countermeasures ‘toolbox’ capability led by Belgium Naval & Robotics, a consortium including Naval Group and ECA Group.

As well as the UMS Skeldar V-200 rotary UAV, the package includes unmanned surface craft, the USV INSPECTOR125, which can deploy the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) A18M, towed T18 sonars for mine detection, as well as SEASCAN identification and K-STER neutralisation robots. Part of the V-200’s appeal is that it can also act as a communications relay between various platforms and the host vessel. The contract agreement with UMS Skeldar is for 10 V-200 systems with deliveries expected to begin in 2023.

A standard operating package would comprise two V-200 UAVs and a ground control station. The UAV’s heavy fuel engine is manufactured by German company Hirth Engines, which UMS Skeldar acquired in May 2018. This engine gives the V-200 a maximum speed of around 81 knots (150km/h) and a service ceiling of nearly 10,000 feet (3,000m).

This success for UMS Skeldar follows earlier section of the V-200 by the German and Canadian Navies. For both of these customers, the V-200 will provide an unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability.

The Canadian version, acquired in 2019 through Qinetiq Canada will also be made available to Canada’s special forces. It will feature an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and Electro-optic infrared (EO/IR) camera.

The German Navy provided UMS Skeldar with its first win in August 2018, through main contractor Elektroniksystem- und Logistik (ESG). The V-200B is now operating off German Navy Corvette Class 130 vessels.

UMS Skeldar’s V-200 UAV has been selected for the Belgium/Netherlands (BE/NL) next generation offboard mine countermeasures (MCM) programme.

VRS700: Deck Landing’s Beckon

On 28 July, the second prototype of Airbus Helicopters’ VSR700 had its first free flight just over nine months since its first tethered flight. The flight of 10 minutes was made at the test facility near Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, close to the Guimbal factory where the aircraft platform originates.

“This now opens up further testing toward the full flight domain,” said Nicolas Delmas, UAS and VRS700 programme director, in an exclusive conversation with AI. “Airbus Helicopter is taking a step-by-step approach to the development of this prototype VS700 unmanned aircraft,” he said.

Airbus Helicopters is making steady progress with its VSR700 UAV towards deck-landing trials with the French navy in 2021.

Back in 2013, Airbus began optionally piloted trials with its EC145 aircraft which Delmas describes as ‘an important first step.’ “That is when we started working with the Intelligent Flight Control System (IFCS), one of the key technologies when you are developing drones,” he stated.

The selection of the Guimbal Cabri G2 helicopter as the baseline for the development of the VSR700 took place in 2017 after Airbus signed up to a de-risking study with the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) to develop the UAV for the French Navy.

From 2017 the development programme began to run at full pace and the agreement will last until 2022. “We expect them to trigger the next phase after that,” said Delmas, adding that this would then take the UAV capability into full production and service.

The Guimbai Cabri G2 was selected as the platform of choice for the VSR700 because “it was the best compromise in terms of weight, performance, maintenance costs and operating costs. It embodied the segment in which we should be for future rotorcraft drones,” Delmas said. He added that “it also has good flight performance thanks to its three-blade rotor, which is especially important when taking off automatically from a ship.” The VSR700 is in the 500-1,000kg (1,100-2,200lb) weight class and will be able to carry a variety of naval sensors. Endurance is billed as between eight and 10 hours, depending on the payload up to around 100kg.

The first free flight on the VSR700 took place on 28 July this year at Aix-en-Provence in France.

The Cabri G2 has already sold over 200 units and has over 200,000 flight hours, which was another factor that led to its selection. “We have not started from scratch. We have tried not to modify the original aircraft and tried not to make something too complex. We want to keep the DNA of the Cabri,” stated Delmas.

However some alternations have been necessary. “The VSR shape has of course been redesigned – a drone is not operated in the same way as a manned helicopter,” noted Delmas.

“The engine that we have today is an upgrade of the Cabri G2 initial gasolene engine. We have added some specific additions to the management of the engine [using diesel/jet fuel].”

Naval Group is a co-contractor with Airbus on the project, both organisations working for the DGA. “We compliment each other. Airbus Helicopter is fully responsible for the complete unmanned air vehicle including the mission system inside the air vehicle and the integration of the sensors – the first mission we will perform will be ISR. A We will rely on a two sensor configuration for that. We are working with Thales to deliver the datalink to the air vehicle from the ground station and everything that is linked to the performance of the air vehicle.”

The actual tactical air vehicle mission system, and how that integrates with the naval vessel’s software and onboard mission system is the responsibility of the Naval Group.

There are currently two prototypes that are flying. The first is close to a Cabri G2 and is capable of flying with a safety pilot and is the Optionally Piloted Vehicle (OPV), but has all necessary avionics and software for unmanned flight without any mission systems. “It is the vehicle we can use to test the avionics and new functions,” said Delmas. “In the next months the OPV will mainly be used to keep developing all the navalisation part of the UAV; basically it will finalise all the autonomous flight laws so that it can land and take-off from a ship.”

The second prototype is the most recent VS700, which is not expected to change that much going forward, but the shape has been optimised to house all the electronics and all of the mission systems. This is the aircraft that has flown the tethered and free flights.

“The sea demonstration is planned but we will begin deck landing trails with its VSR700 later in the year, progressing to sea trials with the French Navy in 2021. At the start of 2021 we will implement the full flight domain on prototype 1 then implement the full mission system that will be used for the demonstration. 2021 will be when the full mission system will be validated prior to the demonstration,” confirmed Delmas.

In 2022 Airbus, Naval Group, the French Navy and DGA will redraw their contract to allow for additional activities and to assess the 2021. This will lead to a further refinement of requirements leading to the final end product. “We will be using two prototypes to continue with the French Navy, who would still like a capability as early as possible.” said Delmas. A second demonstrator for the French Navy’s “Système de Drone Aérien pour la Marine” programme has already been confirmed by the French Ministry of Armed Forces as part of the PlanAero. However, the French Defence Ministry’s current budget planning does not see the UAV’s entry into service no earlier than 2025. But Airbus will have an ongoing contract to further develop the UAS and is in discussion with the government how that end date might be brought forward.

S-100: at sea or ashore

Schiebel has been an early leader in developing its customer base with its well know S-100 Camcopter. In November 2019 the company announced that the S-100 had been integrated with the French Navy Mistral class amphibious helicopter carrier Dixmude.

In March this year approval was received for Schiebel’s newly designed heavy fuel S2 engine, which will allow the RAN to expand its test and evaluation of the aircraft prior to the Sea 129 Phase 5 programme which will result in the selection of the future UAS capability for the RAN´s new Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs).

Having already convinced the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) of its technology – *22X Squardon already operates several units for maritime duties – Schiebel has now teamed with Raytheon Australia for what could be one of its biggest wins to date if its bid for the Australian Land 129 Phase 3 is successful.

by Andrew Drwiega