Airbus drops and flies a support drone from a Bundeswehr A400M

Airbus drops and flies a support drone from a Bundeswehr A400M
Visuel : Airbus

Airbus announced Dec. 12 that it has conducted a first flight test of airdrop followed by operation of a support drone demonstrator from an A400M, in collaboration with the Bundeswehr, the German Aerospace Center DLR, SFL and Geradts companies. Airbus military transport aircraft equipped with this drop device could extend the reach of unmanned systems, one of the expectations of the SCAF program.

Initiated in 2017, the Franco-German SCAF (Système de Combat Aérien du Futur) project, joined by Spain, aims to build a next-generation weapons system (NGWS) by 2040. According to those involved in the program, the SCAF is not a combat aircraft project but a ‘system of systems’ project, of which the aircraft is only one element.” It will consist of:

  • A fighter aircraft that is a priori manned at this stage (the NGF);
  • Remote carriers (drones or remote effectors) weighing from 1 kilogram to one ton, unmanned, with saturation capabilities (sending swarms to saturate enemy defenses), decoying, intelligence (before and during the mission), and even strikes against highly defended targets; they will be recoverable in full flight
  • A combat cloud allowing interoperability, connection and dialogue between the different platforms.

The role of the AI within the SCAF

AI will play a key role in this system, whether for the next-generation aircraft or the UAVs. For the program leaders, it is a way to increase the capabilities of humans, who would remain at the heart of the system, rather than as a means to replace them. It will help the pilot in his decision making by sorting the most relevant information from the sensors to avoid saturation and reduce combat stress. The AI will automatically generate mission plans, manage the adaptation of sensors to the terrain and perform predictive maintenance. It will also play a role in the field of cooperation between drones.

The support drone demonstrator launched and operated from an A400M in flight

To prepare the A400M UAV launcher for the test campaign, Airbus, the Bundeswehr Aviation Technical Center, DLR, SFL and Geradts applied new working methods supported by the German armaments agency BAAINBw, such as rapid prototyping and a common approach to flight tests.

The device for launching support drones from an A400M was developed in just six months. For the test flight, it was installed in the cargo bay of a Bundeswehr A400M, from which a modified Airbus Do-DT25 UAV was launched. After the drop, the Do-DT25’s engines were ignited by the A400M crew, who took control of the drone and then transferred it to a ground operator, who landed the remote carrier safely.

Michael Schoellhorn, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space, states:

“The excellent collaboration with our customer and our German partners on this A400M UAV launcher campaign is further evidence of how the development of the SCAF will take innovation and technology to the next level. SCAF as a system of systems is starting to take shape now.”

“According to Airbus, military transport aircraft such as the A400M will be able to play an important role: as a ‘mothership’, they will be able to transport the support drones as close as possible to their areas of operation before releasing up to 50 small support drones or up to 12 larger support drones. These will then join the manned aircraft, operating with a high degree of autonomy, but still under the control of a pilot.

Translated from Airbus largue et pilote un drone d’appui depuis un A400M de la Bundeswehr