June 18, 2012
Credit: Credit: Amy Svitak/AWST
Robert Wall and Amy Svitak/Paris
European unmanned aircraft programs advance in stops and starts, but given current budget limitations any movement is welcome.
In Germany and France, there are now signs that long-expected unmanned aircraft modernization programs may be gaining traction, if only at an early stage. Both countries are mulling whether fixed-wing or helicopter-based systems are the way forward, or whether they should buy a mix of systems. Despite much discussion in Europe about cooperation on new procurements, at this point there is no indication that Berlin and Paris plan to work hand-in-hand.
Germany is starting to think about how to replace its KZO and Luna tactical UAVs now used in Afghanistan. The timeline is not set, but it has industry looking at options. German unmanned aircraft maker EMT is working on the Luna NG (next-generation) which is still in the development and concept phase. The exact configuration is still evolving and will largely depend on where the German military's requirement ends up.
The NG will feature greater payload capacity and endurance than the existing version. The payload is expected to be variable, between 15 kg (33 lb.) and 30 kg, depending on how users want to trade payload for endurance (the current Luna has a payload of around 5 kg). At 15 kg, EMT targets 14-hr. endurance. A demonstration flight of the Luna NG is likely before year-end, a company official says.
The Luna NG would be able to carry multiple payloads. Like Luna, it could act as a beyond line-of-sight relay for other Luna NGs, but do so even while carrying a surveillance sensor.
With uncertainty over whether Germany will also opt for a vertical-takeoff-and-landing system, EMT is keeping a foot in both camps and is finishing assembly of the 130-kg-class Museco helicopter unmanned aircraft. It is to be delivered soon to the German defense ministry's armaments agency, the BWB.
EADS also has its eye on the market and is about to take control of a UAV joint venture in Germany that combines Rheinmetall's programs, such as KZO, with its own, says Nicolas Chamussy, head of unmanned systems at Cassidian. The company is looking at a tactical system that could operate in more austere conditions than larger tactical unmanned aircraft, such as the Thales Watchkeeeper the U.K. is buying.