Leonardo’s Falco Xplorer

Leonardo’s Falco Xplorer

Leonardo’s newly launched Falco Xplorer variant. Leonardo

Leonardo has added another product to its established Falco family of remotely piloted air systems by launching the Falco Xplorer.

This tactical variant of the Falco features a payload capacity of over 350kg (771lb), an operational endurance of more than 24 hours, and a satellite communications capability for beyond-radioline- of-sight operations within a 1,300kg (2,866lb) maximum takeoff weight. The Falco Xplorer’s baseline Block 10 equipment fit will include a Gabbiano T-80 surveillance radar, LEOSS electrooptical turret, a SAGE electronic intelligence system and an automatic identification system for maritime use.

Leonardo said: “The Falco Xplorer has been designed from the ground up to access the widest possible market. It is undergoing certification for flight in nonsegregated airspace, meaning Leonardo will be able to pitch it to civil customers such as coast guards and emergency responders, as well as the military market.”

Leonardo said the Falco Xplorer’s maiden flight will take place from Trapani Airport in Italy, with flight trials through the remainder of this year leading up to a flight campaign with the platform’s fully integrated sensor suite. The system, to be certified according to NATO STANAG 4671, could be delivered to its launch customer as early as 2020, Leonardo said. No orders have been disclosed by the manufacturer so far.

More than 50 examples of the Falco family are currently used worldwide, either by customers directly or operated by Leonardo on behalf of customers in a service where the manufacturer operates the aircraft and its sensors and manages logistics. Mark Broadbent

TACE tests for Skyborg at Edwards

An unmanned jet-powered aircraft takes off from the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base, California on July 25 testing a software suite called TACE, or Testing Autonomy in a Complex Environment. Giancarlo Casem/US Air Force

In recent months, AIR International has carried reports about Skyborg, a US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) programme to develop a prototype autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle.

The US Air Force describes Skyborg as “a developing software tool that allows engineers and researchers to develop autonomous capabilities”. To meet the requirement to have an Early Operational Capability for Skyborg as early as 2023, the AFRL is testing autonomous elements in partnership with the Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force within the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

One test recently disclosed by the US Air Force was a mission from Edwards involving a subscale jet-powered system fitted with an autonomous software system called TACE (Testing Autonomy in a Complex Environment) developed by John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

A US Air Force statement explained: “The TACE safety net programming sits between a vehicle’s safety critical control system and its mission system.

Proven algorithms keep [the aircraft] within safe bounds defined before take-off.”

The idea is to let the small autonomous test aircraft, which measures about 12ft (3.6m) long, fly itself out of the safety bounds, the TACE programme taking control of the aircraft to take it to a safe point.

The flight, which followed an earlier TACE test on a smaller, lower-performance aircraft flying at 30kts (55km/h), will lead into a further test on a more powerful full-size aircraft equipped with TACE.

Jeff Jessen, Chief Engineer, Emerging Technology Combined Test Force, said: “Ultimately this is going to be our safety net for future autonomous testing. We hope to be testing autonomy that does air combat-type manoeuvres and TACE is fundamental to being able to allow us to do that safely and effectively.” Mark Broadbent

Unmanned gyrocopter for cargo ops

A gyrocopter without a pilot is a current German Aerospace Center research project. DLR

Any gyrocopter is a distinctive aircraft, but an unmanned example even more so. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or DLR) is testing an unmanned gyrocopter to research the system’s ability to transport larger cargo items autonomously at low altitudes. Test flights with the system have recently been carried out at the National Experimental Test Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems at Cochstedt Airport near Magdeburg.

The tests are part of the DLR’s ALAADy (Automated Low Altitude Air Delivery) Demonstrator project researching how a larger UAV can transport loads of up to 200kg (441lb) close to the ground over distances of up to 270 nautical miles (500km) in lowerlevel airspace.

A gyrocopter is somewhat larger than many of the typical unmanned rotary-wing systems designed to deliver cargo, but Rolf Henke, Member of the DLR Executive Board responsible for Aeronautics Research, said: “Below normal air traffic, the concept allows for flexible operations on regional routes, away from populated areas.”

Sven Lorenz from the DLR Institute of Flight Systems, who is leading the construction and trial operation of the technology demonstrator, added: “Gyrocopters have the particular advantage of being inherently safe. In the event of a failure, the free-spinning rotor enables a gentle landing, as occurs with a parachute.”

Extensive modifications of the autogyro for the ALAADy project included the installation of a freight-carrying area and retrofitting with sensors, actuators and a flight control computer, and modifying software and hardware for automated flight.

One challenge in modifying the equipment lay in the design of the actuators to control the throttle and the roll and pitch angles of the rotor head, and in the absence of anything suitable on the market the DLR had to adapt actuators especially for the aircraft.

During the flight tests, the DLR’s developers initially controlled the gyrocopter manually via a radio link to prove the system’s airworthiness. Early test flights saw the gyrocopter achieve an altitude of 492ft (150m) and travel at speeds of approximately 54kts (100km/h).

The DLR said the initial tests, “show that gyrocopters are a suitable configuration for uncrewed air transport” and that a gyrocopter, “will allow flexible, safe and costeffective transport”. Researchers believe the ALAADy project’s findings provide, “important building blocks for operating uncrewed aircraft of this size cost-effectively and safely” outside restricted areas and help determine how gyrocopter-sized unmanned vehicles can be integrated into standard air-freight operations.

The ALAADy project also involves analysing the economics of this type of transport and identifying upcoming challenges and potential areas of application.

The aims are to develop potential strategies to mitigate risks, work out aircraft configurations and ways of integrating them into the existing air traffic system, and determine public acceptance.

Mark Broadbent

RAF’s ‘swarming’ drone test squadron

The Royal Air Force is to reform 216 Squadron as a specialist unit testing small ‘swarming’ UAVs, it was announced during the Air and Space Power Conference in London in July. The disclosure follows the news earlier this year that a consortium led by Blue Bear Systems Research Ltd has been awarded a Defence Science and Technology Laboratory contract to develop drone swarming technology. Reports quoted the outgoing Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, saying the intention is to bring drone swarming to the frontline by 2026. No 216 Squadron was last active in March 2014 operating Lockheed TriStars from RAF Brize Norton. Mark Broadbent

Unmanned survey work

Data from UAV flights has been used by used to create virtual models of airports in Washington State. AeroTEC

Surveys were recently carried out at Sunnyside Municipal Airport and Prosser Airport in Washington state assessing UAVs as photogrammetry platforms for the Washington State Department of Transportation Aviation Division airport inspections. Seattle-based AeroTEC flew an undisclosed type of UAV to demonstrate how unmanned systems might be used to provide the department with a more accurate and lowercost way of producing runway obstacle reports. Mark Broadbent

MQ-8C Fire Scout declared

The recent declaration of MQ-8C IOC opens the door for US Navy training and fleet operations to begin later this year. Naval Air Systems Command
An MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter conducts landing operations with the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4). The MQ-8C Fire Scout variant is expected to deploy with the LCS class to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, and precision targeting support. Mass Communication Specialist Jacob Allison/US Navy

The United States Naval Air Systems Command declared an initial operational capability for its Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter on June 28, 2019.

When announcing the achievement on July 8, 2018, the US Navy said the milestone clears the way for fleet operations and training to commence in the second half of 2019. Captain Eric Soderberg, Fire Scout Programme Manager, said: “This milestone is a culmination of several years of hard work and dedication from our joint government and industry team. We are excited to get this enhanced capability out to the fleet. The Northrop Grumman-built Fire Scout complements the manned (Sikorsky) MH-60 helicopter by extending the range and endurance of shipbased operations. It provides unique situational awareness and precision target support for the Navy.”

The MQ-8C Fire Scout is based on the Bell 407 commercial helicopter and has the capability of remaining on station for more than 12 hours, according to the Navy.

The helicopter is larger than the earlier MQ-8B Fire Scout, which is based on the Schweizer 300 airframe and currently conducting operations from the decks of the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships in the 5th and 7th Fleets. The MQ-8C offers an upgraded radar, with a larger field of view and a range of digital modes including weather detection, air-to-air targeting and a ground moving target indicator.

The first MQ-8C deployment to sea aboard one of the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships will occur in the 2021 US fiscal year. Nigel Pittaway

Marshall begins Wedgetail work

Cambridge-based Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group announced on July 16, 2019, that it has signed a contract with Boeing for preparatory work on the E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) platform for the Royal Air Force.

Under the contract, Marshall will perform risk reduction activities, with a subsequent programme of work to be announced at a later date.

The company will perform the conversion of the ‘green’ 737 Next Generation commercial aircraft in the United Kingdom.

Marshall Aerospace and Defence CEO Alistair McPhee said: “We are delighted that we have been selected by Boeing for this role in the delivery of the E-7 and are very proud to be playing such a key role on such a strategically important programme for the UK MoD. We have a team of employees ready to work on this programme, which will ensure we are prepared to start immediately on modifying the first aircraft when it arrives with us in Cambridge. We will be further growing the team as we move towards 2021 and agree the follow-on work to modify the aircraft as the programme matures.”

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced on March 22, 2019, that the UK government had signed a £1.9 billion contract for the acquisition of five Boeing E-7 Wedgetails. The aircraft will replace the Royal Air Force’s ageing fleet of Boeing E-3D Sentry AEW1 aircraft, currently in service with 8, 54 and 56 Squadrons at RAF Waddington.

The first Wedgetail is currently planned to be delivered to the RAF in 2023.

Nigel Pittaway

RAF Poseidon maiden flight

The first P-8A for the RAF, serial number ZP801, will be delivered to the UK in early 2020 after being used to support training in the United States. Boeing

The first of nine Boeing P-8A Poseidon MRA1 maritime surveillance aircraft for the Royal Air Force, ZP801 (N456DS c/n 64175), made its maiden flight from Boeing’s production facility at Renton, Seattle, on July 12, 2019.

Following the successful 90-minute production test flight the aircraft was inducted into Boeing’s P-8 Installation and Checkout facility in Tukwila, Washington for mission systems installation and testing.

ZP801 is expected to be delivered to the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) in late 2019 before flying to Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida to support RAF P-8A training, which is being conducted by the US Navy’s P-8 Fleet Replacement Squadron, Patrol Squadron 30 (VP-30) ‘Pros Nest’.

The RAF announced on April 16, 2019, that pilots, weapons system officers and weapons systems operators had entered the simulator and flying phase of their six-month course at Jacksonville. The crews are being trained by a mix of US Navy and RAF P-8A seedcorn one-way exchange instructors.

The first aircraft is expected to arrive in the UK in early 2020 and the fleet of nine will be operated by CXX Squadron, based at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray in Scotland.

A strategic facility is under construction at Lossiemouth to support P-8A operations from the base, including the erection of a three-bay hangar, and is expected to be ready for use in the (northern) autumn of 2020.

Commenting on ZP801’s first flight, Air Commodore Richard Barrow, Senior Responsible Officer for the UK P-8A programme, said: “This is a great milestone in the UK P-8A Poseidon’s journey to the UK, as we are one step closer to its arrival in Scotland. The platform will enhance the UK’s maritime patrol capability with advanced, state-of-the-art technology.”

Nigel Pittaway

Canada’s search and rescue C295

The first C295 Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft for the RCAF will be delivered to Comox, British Colombia, before the end of 2019. Airbus Defence and Space

Airbus Defence and Space announced on July 5, 2019, that the first C295 for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) has made its maiden flight from the company’s facility at San Pablo, Seville.

The first flight occurred on July 4, 2019, at 2020 local time and lasted one hour and 27 minutes, marking the beginning of its delivery process.

The aircraft, allocated the test registration EC005 for its maiden flight, is the first of 16 ordered by the Canadian government in December 2016 and will be delivered to the RCAF by the end of 2019. Its arrival will allow operational training to commence at 19 Wing CFB Comox, British Columbia, where Airbus DS has assisted in the establishment of a C295 training centre. The first RCAF crews will begin their training at the manufacturer’s international training centre in Seville in the late (northern) summer of 2019.

In service the C295 FWSAR aircraft will be operated from Comox, as well as from CFB Winnipeg, Manitoba; CFB Trenton, Ontario; and CFB Greenwood, Nova Scotia.

Airbus DS, said: “Considerable progress has been made since the FWSAR programme was announced two and a half years ago: the first aircraft will now begin flight testing; another five aircraft are in various stages of assembly; and seven simulator and training devices are in various testing stages.”

Nigel Pittaway