Unmanned Systems
Sep 15, 2015

The term “Unmanned System” has only been in the general lexicon for a few decades, which may explain why we can’t decide between “unmanned”, “autonomous”, or “robotic”. Whatever we call them, these systems operate in any environment – air, land or water – and are controlled remotely. An unmanned system is capable of controlled, sustained operation and is typically used for monotonous or dangerous functions. After years of research and development by scientists in both public and private sectors, hundreds of millions of investment dollars, and years of in theatre operation, robotic technology has finally reached a point of sophistication where it deserves a greatly expanded role in many areas.

France operated the Reaper during its mission in Niger. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

Possibly hesitant due to the developmental nature of early technology, Canada has been slow on the uptake, putting programs like the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Targeting and Acquisition System (JUSTAS) on hold for years, but this is now reportedly set for Definition Approval in 2017 and should be awarded in 2019. This system is intended to reduce the time between the discovery/request for precision strike and delivery of the effect. Canada is also looking at a few other requirements, the Navy has listed the Remote Minehunting & Disposal System (RMDS) in its 2015 Capital Investment Plan. A Canadian Underwater Mine Warfare Apparatus program is slated for Options Analysis this year. A Naval Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Surface Vehicle (NMCM USV) capability to search for, detect, classify, identify, and dispose of modern sea mines and Underwater Improvised Explosive Devices (UIEDs) from a stand-off surface platform, is set for Options Analysis sometime in 2016.

Looking on the horizon, a Canadian Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Recapitalization project that will replace the Land Force’s tactical UAVs with next generation vehicles and payloads to improve the surveillance and reconnaissance capability beyond the line of sight of the land commanders, is expected to be in Options Analysis by 2024.

Bertin Hovereye

Aerial: UAV
France was one of the first in this domain, developing the Nord Aviation R20 in the 1960s. This modified target drone was designed to find targets for the French army artillery and was later adapted by Canada’s Bombardier, as CL-89 and CL-289, and utilized the Balkans wars. The CL289 was adapted to French needs by Aerospatiale, and chistenend the “Piver” (little bird) in the French Army. It had the ability to transmit infrared pictures during flight. Attrition of these units was high due to the fast low-level flights – a 700 km trip took only 35 minutes to complete.

Aerospatiale worked on High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs, some of this science is a forerunner of Northrop Grumman’s current RQ-4 Global Hawk.  But neither the French Air Force nor the international market were keen on it.

The group was unsuccessful in designing its own Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV and so the French Air Force adopted the Israeli Heron to assist its ground forces. In Afghanistan, Canadian company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) operated the Heron in support of the Canadian and Australian Air Forces to “provide commanders on the ground with information they needed to fight and keep their people safe.” Cooperative operations for both countries were enabled by an MOU signed between the two air forces. Initially, RAAF aircrews were sent as exchange officers to Canada and joined the RCAF’s Heron detachment. After Canada withdrew from Afghanistan, the RCAF continued to embed staff with the RAAF to operate their Herons. Following Australia’s withdrawal from combat operations in Afghanistan in late 2014, the RAAF decided to retain two Herons for a further three years with options to extend until the end of 2020. During this time, concepts of operation will be developed to prepare the Australian Defence Forces for the arrival of the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton UAS under Australia’s AIR 7000 program. MDA offers a full turnkey surveillance service including flight permits, insurance, aircraft, payloads, fuel, maintenance, operators, ground equipment and infrastructure.

Harfang (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

When the IAI Heron was transformed by EADS under the name of “Harfang” (a white nordic owl), it gained a revolutionnary SATCOM antenna designed by Zodiac. This UAV was used in Afghanistan (2009 to 2012), in Libya (2011) and in Niger (2013). Four were delivered to France’s escadron de drones (UAV squadron) 1/33 Belfort, which was a former Mirage F1CR manned recce fighter squadron.

The French Air Force needed more performance for its counter-terrorism flights in Sahel, so it bought a Reaper system made by California-based General Atomics for this urgent operationnal requirement (UOR). The first two were delivered in December 2013, with a third in 2015. A system with COMINT capabilities will be delivered on 2016. The Reaper can fly 20-hour missions, compared to the 25-hour endurance of the Harfang, but end-users (often special operations forces) prefer the high-definition MTS-B optronic turret of L-3 WESCAM’s MQ-9. For the U.S. and French Air Forces, the Reaper is leading the way on counter-terrorist use. Italy and the Netherlands also operate the Reaper.

To counter the Reaper’s supremacy, a next generation MALE UAV is being developped in Europe. Dassault, Alenia and Airbus combined expertise to create the “MALE 2020”. Airbus would like to use the technologies and solutions previously identified in a development program called Talarion. Contracts for a 2-year definition study may be finalized by year-end.

Combat: UCAV
Dassault Aviation, developper of the Rafale fighter jet, began work on UAVs in the 90s, with the FOAS (future offensive air system) studies with BAE Systems. The study was aimed at finding a replacement for the British Tornadoes and the French Mirage, and which could potentially fill a Combat UAV role. The collaboration failed and Dassault Aviation began work with Airbus, HAI, Alenia, and Saab on a delta wing design (called “Little Duke”) that became the Neuron, funded with a budget of €460million. The first flight occured in December 2012, and the first bombs were launched from a Neuron in September 2015 during a test flight in northern Sweden. This project is reported to be €10million under budget.

Neuron on display. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

The 7-ton (max gross weight) airframe can carry two guided bombs in an internal bay. This UCAV demonstrator is powered by a Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour Mk 951 engine. The next phase will see French and British industry collaboration in a program dubbed FCAS (future combat air system) that will replace the Tornado and Mirage 2000, providing also a quick-recce capability. More than 20 years after the short FOAS experience, Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems will work on the airframe  and Thales France and Selex UK are studying the payload (optronics, ESM, SAR, data links). Engines will be furnished by Snecma and Rolls-Royce. Funding from the two countries is €150 million for the two-year period ending November 2016. The follow-on will be clarified in the next British Defence and Strategic Review.

Tactical: TUAV
The first 100% French Tactical UAV contract was won by Sagem on 1992. Named the “Crécerelle” (little bird), it was mostly a target drone (which looked like the British Target Technology Spectre) with sensors. It had 3-hour endurance, and a data link capability of only 50 km. Though deployed in Bosnia (1996) its usefulness was limited. Sagem won the competition for another “Système de drone tactique intérimaire” once again (against EADS) with an upgraded unit called Sperwer. This UAV was adopted by Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Canada used it for a few years in Afghanistan before selling it to the French Army, choosing the Heron instead. At 2.9 meters long and 4.4 meters wide, this “interim” product weighed in at 330 kg and could fly up to five hours (less in Afghanistan, where the French deployed it between 2008 and 2012, because of hot and high conditions), from 80 km to its base.

The Sperwer had the ability to pinpoint a target and transmit its coordinates to the artillery chain for reactive fire. Afghanistan flights were very hard on this UAV, which had been developed for the European theater. Many of the optronics turrets (underneath the UAV) were almost destroyed with hard and rocky landings.

Sagem Spwerwer

After 12 years of an “interim” product, the French Army is finally looking for a more modern TUAV. Before the end of 2015, it will choose between the Thales Watchkeeper (funded by the British Army that sent it to Afghanistan), the IAI Pelerin (Pilgrim) a reduced Heron UAV, and the Sagem Patroller.

Thales seems to be the front-runner. Its UAV is already certified for European airspace, which is a key requirement for training sorties, and French and British Armies have already been working on a cooperation program. Watchkeeper was developed from an Israeli platform (Elbit Hermes 450), and  equipped with Thales sensors, such as a GMTI radar. The French version will have a COMINT bay, which will take the place of the SAR/GMTI radar, or the EO/IR turret, and a NATO compatible encrypted data link. The imagery chain has also been improved by Lheritier, a SME part of the “French Watchkeeper Team”. With this victory, Thales will take over the French UAV market, which has been dominated by Sagem and Airbus for 25 years.

A generic export version is also offered to Poland and other prospects under the name of Watchkeeper-X. Poland has also requested an armed configuration.

Watchkeeper on display. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

Mini: MUAV
Another outcome is awaited in the following years, with the replacement of the Airbus DRAC mini-UAV used by the French Army, and the Israeli Elbit Skylark used by Special Operations Forces. Thales offers a solution from a partner company, Airbus is to propose a new MUAV developed by its subsidiary Surveycopter (which worked on the DRAC), and the French Ineo partners are offering the Israeli Aeronautics Orbiter.

DRAC had been tested in Kosovo before reaching Afghanistan after a long modification phase because it had to face hot and high conditions, and rocky landings which generated attrition. DRAC has also been used in French Antilles, and during the Mali campaign where it was flown against jihadists (one 2013 mission allowed a 155 mm Caesar gun to destroy a terrorist convoy). It has also been deployed in Central African Republic (2014).

Airbus DRAC. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

The DRAC weight is 8,3 kg, with a data link range of 10 km. The endurance is only 40 minutes for a speed of 60-90 km. It can fly an EO or IR turret in the nose, is 3.4 meters wide and 1.4 meters long.

There are two versions of the Skylark: the basic Skylark 1, and the 1-LE, which offers improved endurance. The first use by France was in Chad and Central African Republic (2007), but it also flew in Mali (2013). Navy Commandos have also tested two AeroVironoment UAV.

The Pointer, from U.S.-based AeroVironment Incorporated, was the first short range small UAV to be tested by the French Army and Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the 90s. The DROGEN (drone du Genie), developed by Infotron (later bought out by the larger ECA group), is in use by French Engineer (Genie) Regiments. The IT180 is a rotor-UAV that can fly 50 min, with a 10-km data link range. A live body can be detected from 1000 meters by the EO mode and 800 meters by IR mode.

France’s Naval Commandos are also currently testing the American Puma, provided by AeroVironment. The Puma is a small aerial system that is capable of landing on the water or on land.

ECA Inspector

Marine: UUV, USV & AUV
Mine detection and disposal is a key requirement for unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV), however, other tasks include surveillance and recconnaisance, environmental assessment, sea bed mapping, and hydrographic surveys. Atlas Elektronik produces a fibre-optic guided, one-shot mine disposal vehicle called the SeaFox, used for semi-autonomous disposal of naval mines and other ordnance found at sea. Sea mines can be identified by the onboard CCTV camera and destroyed by a built-in, large caliber charge, reducing disposal time. Fully qualified for military use, this UUV has been introduced in large numbers into various navies. It is deployable from a wide range of carrier platforms, including dedicated MCM (mine countermeasure) vessels, surface combatants, craft of opportunity, rubber boats and helicopters. The company provides a wide variety of UUV / AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) options, such as the SeaOtter, SeaFox, SeaFoxCobra, and SeaCat to more than 11 navies worldwide, including Germany, the UK and the United States.

SeaOtter by Atlas Elektronik Canada, a joint company of ThyssenKrupp and Airbus D&S. (Photo: Courtesy of Atlas Elektronik)

In France, both the Army and Navy wanted a common unmanned rotorcraft, but the army changed its focus to fixed-wing aircraft and the navy could not fund the program on its own. Recognizing the marine and land possibilities, EADS (now Airbus D&S) decided to fund this on its own and began the Tannan project. This rotor UAV could fly up to 8 hours, carry an EO/IR turret, a simplified air-to surface radar, and antisurface payloads. During the latest Euronaval show in Paris, Airbus and DCNS announced a partnership between the Tannan and ships designed by DCNS.

DCNS Sirenha (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

DCNS has worked for 10 years on automatic landings, with live tests on  French frigates. In the 2000s Sirenha, a subsidiary of DCNS, developed a kit to give unmanned capability to rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIB). A prototype was shown to the French Navy, without any follow-on.

The Spartan Scout was created by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island (2000s) in conjunction with Radix Marine, Northrop-Grumman, and Raytheon, as a low-cost means of extending maritime patrol coverage and providing anti-terrorism force protection for the fleet. Research continues in this cooperative program between the USN and Singapore (which also operates Rafael’s Protector series of USVs).

Airbus led an experimental campaign with the French navy in 2014 to test fixed-wing UAV flights at sea (with recovery by nets). The tactical UAV was provided by Surveycopter, and the French Navy sounded very enthusiastic.

Thales France is interested in the naval market. The group is working on naval modes in the SAR radar, which could be operational “within two years” says Pierre-Eric Pommellet, head of the defense domain at Thales. Another product is the mini-UAV Fulmar, which has the ability to float, a capability that would be appreciated by special forces. Developped by a Spanish SME, the Fulmar is marketed by Thales, and has already been sold to Australia. “Many opportunities are seen in Asia”, says Pomellet.

French industry has been engaged for years on UUV, mainly for mine counter-measures. ECA Group is well-known for its “fishes” as they’re called in the French Navy. The latest version, Alistair 9, discovered its first WWII 900-kg mine during a routine test mission at the end of September, in the Chunnel (the sea between UK and France). This A9-M AUV can operate more than 20 hours up to a depth of 200 meters. The 70kg, 1.5m Alistair 6  version, with lateral scan array sonar, have been delivered to the French Navy.


ECA has also worked on a UUV that could be used for special operations and undersea coast surveys, and a unmanned surface vehicle (USV), called the Inspector. Four systems have recently been delivered to an undisclosed customer. The USV is 9 meter long, 2,95 m wide and just weighs 5 tons, cruising up to 35 knots. It can be used unmanned, manned ou remotely-operated. It can carry an hull-mounted interferometry sensor and a towed side scan sonar. It also has up to two ROV for inspection mission.

France recently announced an order for a French-British counter-mining system. It comprises many different UVs – both surface underwater – that cooperate to detect mines. It could totally replace France’s current 11 minehunter fleet. This program, dubbed SLAMF (future counter mining hunting system) is developed by Thales and ECA Group. Some technological bricks such as a control boat, code named Sterenn Dû (Black Star in Celtic language), have been completed.

ECA Group has won the contract for the third generation of SOF and Special Forces Diving subs (dubbed PSM3G). This could have unmanned capabilities to catch or insert covert agents along a dangerous coast.

The DCNS shipyard also propose UUV technologies coming from its torpedo portfolio. “This could be used for special operations” explained a member of the executive team in Saint-Tropez where DCNS develops and builds light and heavy weight torpedoes.

Ground: UGV
Nexter Robotics, a recent subsidiary of Nexter Group acquired robotics company Wifibot in 2013. Its first product for the defence/security sector is called the Nerva. More than 50 systems have been sold in a few months to the Dutch Army, Burma Army, Swiss Police, and one to the French counter terrorist group GIGN. Neva has many configurations (such as a 3D vehicle scan) and can move on stairs, rubble, and sandy roads with its new mobility kit.

ECA group also offers UGV, such as the 6 kg Cobra that can be fitted with a water disruptor as part of its payload. With endurance of up to 2.5 hours, at a distance of 250 meters from its operator (or 1000 meters if controlled by fiber optic wire). ECA Group sold a heavier UGV, dubbed Cameleon E, to the Paris Demining Squad this summer.

Jean-Marc Tanguy is a defence writer based in Paris.
© FrontLine Defence 2015