France’s SDT Programme Update

One drone that sported familiar lines had every reason to draw the visitor’s attention on the Airbus chalet grounds at the Paris Air Show in spite of its diminutive size compared with its stable mates. The reason why it appeared somewhat out of place was due to  its lines that had rather more American than European overtones. A closer look indeed revealed that the Artemis designation stencilled on its nose could not really hide the aircraft’s Textron Shadow M2 DNA .

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The shape of the Airbus Artemis parked in the outdoor static exhibition area at the Paris Air Show rang a bell or two. (©Eric H. Biass )

Until recently, one had been led to believe that the list of contenders for France’s SDT programme so-called tactical drone system only included Sagem with the Patroller and Thales with the Watchkeeper. This was not counting on Airbus, which recently decided to gatecrash the process and make an unsolicited proposal with a “Frenchised” version of the Shadow 200. In being launchable by catapult, retrieved by parachute and intended for missions of 45 minutes (although it’s able of 9 hour flights) over a range of 20 kilometres, the Artemis is believed by Airbus to much better suit the French Army’s needs. The latter, by the way, are said not to be clearly defined, which perhaps explains why the 250kg bird is way off the mark set by the 500-kilo Watchkeeper and the one-tonne Patroller – which, to further enhance contrasts, are conventional take-off and landing aircraft (this being said, the Artemis can also be conventionally launched and landed on a runway).

 

Interestingly, and in spite of their dramatically different physical characteristics, all three drones have a common feature in that none boasts an airframe originally developed by their manufacturers, as explained below.

 

Sagem Patroller: Using a redeveloped German Stemme S-10VT motorglider airframe, the Patroller is the heaviest of the trio, being in the one-tonne class. It also is an optionally inhabitable aircraft, meaning that it this configuration it can be used in civilian aerospace. From a systems point of view, and this includes ground control stations, the Patroller extensively draws on the substantial experience drawn by Sagem over nearly a quarter of a century, first with the Crecerelle in the former Yugoslavia conflict in the 1990s, then with the Sperwer throughout the Afghan war. In all, including for export customers, Sagem also has trained some Sperwer 400 pilots.

 

The Patroller boasts triplex controls, and with the extra fuel accommodated under its  underwing pylons, the aircraft’s autonomy is boosted from 10 to 20 hours. In a configuration that substitutes one of the underwing pods for a synthetic aperture radar autonomy drops to 15 hours. The type of radar is of course a customer choice, although the aircraft displayed at the Paris Air Show sported a Selex Picosar radar, which according to a Sagem official, has been fully tested to demonstrate the datalink’s ability to transmit data from both the Picosar and the Sagem Euroflir 410 underbelly electro-optical ball, feeding that ground station with merged information. The Patroller’s edge over its competitors is that it has already proved its ability to operate within civilian airport procedures during trials in Toulouse-Blagnac in 2014, testing in the process an collision warning system. Like its contenders, it uses an automatic take-off and landing system.

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Sagem Patroller (©Eric H. Biass)

Sagem Patroller:

– Wingspan: 18m
– Length: 8.50m
– Engine (current): Rotax 914F, 86kW
– Engine (future): Danielson jet-fuel Trident 140 TD2 4-cyl, 100kW
– Endurance (nominal): approx 10 hours
– Range: 200km (line-of-sight Ku-band datalink)
– Payload capacity: 250kg (extra fuel pods, radar pod, sigint pod)
– Ceiling: Approx. 20,000ft
– Max speed: Approx. 310 km/h

 

Thales Watchkeeper: this drone finds its origins in a British programme initiated in 2005 with a view to rapidly provide British Army troops based in the Helmand province of Afghanistan with a means to gather intelligence in the region. The adoption of a modified Hermes 450 airframe from Elbit was intended to speed up the development process, but the drone only was made available in September 2014 instead of 2010.

 

Unlike the Hermes 450 (of which a few were ushered into service by the British Army as a stop-gap measure) the Watchkeeper is a dual sensor drone, carrying a Thales I-Master dual-mode synthetic aperture radar in the forward part of the fuselage belly in addition to a Compass IV-based stabilised electro-optical suite in the rear section. Both relay their data to the ground station via a Cubic datalink. The other noticeable difference with the Hermes 450 is the wing-to-fuselage assembly which is shoulder-mounted on the Watchkeeper instead of pylon mounted on the Hermes, and a nose landing wheel that retracts to clear the radar’s forward view. While the Watchkeeper has been used operationally in Afghanistan, full operational capability (including de-icing for instance) will only occur in 2017.

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Thales Watchkeeper (©Thales)

Thales Watchkeeper:

– Wingspan: 10.5m
– Length: 6.1m
– Weight: 450kg
– Engine (current): Rotary UEL AR801R, 52hp
– Endurance: 20 hours
– Payload capacity: 150kg (Thales I-Master + El Op Compass IV)
– Ceiling: Approx. 20,000ft

 

Artemis: The lightest of the three contenders, the Artemis is based on the latest version of the Textron Shadows, the M2 – not the earlier Shadow 200 as misnamed in Airbus’ brochure. Compared with its forebear, the M2 is readily distinguished by its wider forward fuselage and wing roots that blend into the fuselage. While the wings also sport winglet extensions, the twin-boom-carried inverted V tail section carries the same configuration. The wider fuselage enables the aircraft to accommodate two sensor packages Apart from being adamant that the Artemis will have the firms’ “cyber attack-proof” Lygarion datalink (in use since 2008 by the Harfang drone) Airbus officials declined to be more specific in terms of electo-optical and synthetic aperture radar sensors at this stage, saying that they awaited more precise indications from the French Army.

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Airbus Artemis/Textron Shadow M2 (©Eric H. Biass)

For sake of clarity, the data below pertains to the original Shadow M2 seen in this picture:
– Wingspan: 7m
– Length: 3.9m
– Weight: 340kg
– Engine (current): Lycoming heavy fuel, 48hp
– Endurance: 18 hours
– Payload capacity: 81.6kg
– Ceiling: Approx. 22,000ft