ONERA’s groundwork

One might be forgiven for thinking that the French Aerospace Lab, ONERA (Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches Aérospatiales), centres it work entirely on aerospace, as its name suggests. But Bruno Sainjon, the Lab’s CEO, is at pains to explain that the research done at the Lab, notably in the fields of optics and radar, has specific applications for special forces and intelligence, missiles, Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) and helicopters… all of which also come within the remit of ground forces.

During a visit to the Lab’s headquarters in the south-west suburbs of Paris earlier this week organised by the GICAT (Group of French Defence and Security Land and Air-Land Industries), Sainjon remarked that France and Germany were thinking of creating a joint research agency along the lines of the U.S. Department of Defense’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). This agency, created in 1958 develops emerging technologies for the military and collaborates with academic, industry and government partners. It employs only 220 employees, including 100 programme managers. These people, “extraordinary individuals who are at the top of their fields and are hungry for the opportunity to push the limits of their disciplines,according to the DARPA website, generally work for DARPA for three to five years. “That deadline fuels the signature DARPA urgency to achieve success in less time than might be considered reasonable in a conventional setting.” This agility, speed and thinking out of the box is what Sainjon is after because “it wasn’t by constantly improving the candle that electricity was invented,” he quipped.

One ONERA project, which has taken 30 years to develop, so somewhat longer than Sainjon is aiming for, is a new helicopter blade whose main characteristic is that it is much quieter than those currently in service. It might be used on the H160 HIL helicopter being developed by Airbus Helicopters for the French Army. Work started on the idea in the early 1990s and by the end of the decade the project had advanced sufficiently from the stage of fundamental science to potential development of a product which was finally patented in 2010. “This is a typical example of a bottom-up project, that is, a product developed from a scientific notion, instead of top-down, that is, a request from industry,” Sainjon said.

The Lab is also actively interested in the RPAS segment. It has partnered with the UK’s Cranfield University, the FOI Swedish Defence Research Agency and the Applied Mechanics Lab of the University of Patras in the EuroSWARM project (which we wrote about here), to develop key techniques to enable RPASs to work co-operatively.

Another area the Lab is working on which is of direct interest to ground forces is the protection of vehicles and troops against hostile fire. The “signature”, notably the infrared one, of different types of ammunition must be a known factor if efficient countermeasures are to be developed. Stéphane Langlois, an expert in optical engineering, explained that his department was developing behavioural models of infrared signatures, estimating the spectral intensity according to the speed etc. of different ammunitions as this information is essential for the specifications of threat-detection systems. “This is one of the technological bricks of Scorpion,” he explained. Scorpion is the French Army’s modernisation programme.

Yann Ferrec, another expert in optical engineering, talked about SYSIPHE (SYstème Spectro-Imageur des Propriétés Hyperspectrales Embarqué), an airborne hyperspectral imaging system “whose principal aim is to decamouflage” whatever the enemy is trying to hide. It works by merging data obtained from two instruments, the Sieleters-MWIR and Sieleters-LWIR developed by Onera and the HySpex Odin 1024 for the visible, NIR and SWIR developed by Norway’s FFI and NEO (Norsk elektro optikk). These three instruments are integrated on a Do-228 aircraft operated by the German aerospace centre DLR. The ground sampling distance is 0.5m over a 500m swath with higher resolution available in the visible and NIR. This means that each pixel of the image represents 50cm on the ground instead of the current norm of one or two metres. “This is interesting in order to be able to detect vehicles or other things of that size,” Ferrec explained.

The Do-228 aircraft operated by the German aerospace centre DLR aboard which are the Sieleters-MWIR and Sieleters-LWIR sensors developed by Onera and the HySpex Odin 1024 sensor for the visible, NIR and SWIR developed by Norway’s FFI and NEO (photo credit: DGA)