Finally! The French Army is going to get its Patroller remotely piloted air system (RPAS) in 2018 after the signature this afternoon (5 April) in Montluçon, central France, of the €350 million industrial contract between the DGA French procurement agency and Sagem (Safran), the manufacturer.
The contract is for 14 aircraft and six ground stations, or, in other words, two complete systems each consisting of five aircraft and two ground stations. There are two spare aircraft and two spare ground stations. The RPASs will be operated by a unit of the Intelligence Brigade, the 61st Infantry Regiment (61e Régiment d’Artillerie) based in Chaumont, some 270kms east of Paris.
Each system will be operated by a team of four: a pilot (officially known as a teleoperator), a team leader (who has to have seven years of RPAS piloting experience), a sensors’ operator and an image interpreter.
Sagem has been developing the Patroller on its own funds for almost a decade. Patrice Durieux, Sagem’s marketing director RPASs, told FOB that the developers quickly decided not to design an aircraft, or airborne platform, “as that’s not what we do and we thought there must be plenty of suitable aircraft out there already.”
The one they chose is based on the Stemme S15 designed by a small German company, Stemme AG, based in Strausberg, in the east of former East Germany. The one-ton Stemme S15 is itself based on the Stemme S6 which is a touring motorglider. Stemme has now founded a division, Ecarys, to market this airborne platform.
Durieux said the Stemme was chosen not only because it can carry a payload of more than 250kg and fly to an altitude of 6,000m (20,000ft) but also because it is extremely quiet. It cannot be heard from more than a few hundred metres away.
While Sagem has been developing the Patroller, and in order to be able to fly it in France and meet French civili aviation regulations, it has maintained a pilot onboard so that she can take control of the aircraft if the remote control piloting system should fail. However, senior army officials told FOB that the army was not interested, at this time, in maintaining this “pilot onboard” option.
The Patroller, chosen in January 2016 in a competition that pitted it against Thales’ Watchkeeper, will replace the French Army’s SDTI (Sperwer) RPAS which has served it well. But the Patroller is in a whole different league: it can stay airborne three times longer (about 20 hours), its colour and infrared cameras provide much clearer images and they cover twice the zone.
“Of course, this means that we’ll have to train more teams because after about four hours the team needs to rest and will have to be immediately replaced by a fresh one,” an army officer told FOB.
I started this article by “Finally”, not only because the French Army is impatient to get its hands on this state-of-the-art RPAS, but also because this contract should have been signed on 31 March. However, the plane transporting not only French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the DGA director general Laurent Collet-Billon but also a number of journalists, including FOB, was unable to land at Montluçon airfield, despite three attempts, because of fog! The Patroller would have been able to land: it is all weather and can even handle taking off and landing with sideways winds.