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France, U.K. May Deepen Ties on Drone Warplane

by Brendan McGarry on July 11, 2014

Neuron

The governments of France and the United Kingdom may formalize their pact to develop a drone warplane at this year’s Farnborough International Air Show, Aviation Week reports.

The two countries earlier this year pledged to work together on a project potentially worth $374 million to spend two years studying how to jointly develop an unmanned future air combat system, according to the article. A memorandum of understanding was expected to be signed this summer and a contract awarded this fall, it states.

The drone, or a version of it, may someday complement or even succeed the F-35 fighter jet in the French and British fleets. The Lockheed Martin Corp.-made stealth aircraft was expected to headline this year’s show, but its international debut was cast into doubt after an engine fire in Florida led to a fleet-wide grounding of the plane.

While the F-35 is expected to fly for the next 50 years or more, governments and companies, particularly those in Europe, are rapidly developing and experimenting with unmanned and autonomous technology.

The Europeans have close to 1,600 unmanned platforms built by some 500 companies, slightly edging out North America in both categories, according to a database maintained by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group.

One of Europe’s highest-profile drone projects is the Neuron, an unmanned demonstrator developed by Dassault Aviation and other companies with some $554 million in funding from six countries.

The Neuron in March became the first unmanned stealth aircraft to fly in formation with other manned aircraft. The demonstrator flew for almost two hours over the Mediterranean Sea with four planes, including a Rafale fighter, a Falcon business jet and two observation planes, according to published reports.

The Brits, too, have spent about $300 million developing their own unmanned combat air vehicle, though with much less publicity. The BAE Systems Plc-led design, called the Taranis, conducted its first flight last summer.

Indeed, unmanned systems will get their own stage at Farnborough this year. The so-called Intelligent Systems Zone will provide outdoor space for companies to showcase their unmanned aerial vehicles, ground systems and other autonomous technology, according to promotional materials.

Farnborough_drone_zone

Expect the drone zone to feature small unmanned systems, like the so-called quad– and octo-copters popularized by Domino’s Pizza and the online retailer Amazon​.com — not medium– and high-altitude military systems such as the American-made Predator.

In fact, Predator-maker General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. doesn’t plan on bringing any aircraft to this year’s show, only models, a spokeswoman said. That’s a shift from last year, when the San Diego-based company went out of its way to display a Predator B, known in Air Force parlance as an MQ-9 Reaper, at the Paris Air Show.

Still, executives will be on hand to promote the company’s products, including the export-ready Predator XP, an unarmed version of the aircraft equipped with radar and sensors for wide-area surveillance.

predator_xp

The United Arab Emirates has already announced plans to buy the Predator XP as part of a nearly $200 million deal, and other countries in the Middle East have also expressed an interest in the technology. One likely selling point this year: The export version successfully conducted its first flight a few weeks ago at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

The General Atomics booth will also feature the company’s latest Advanced Cockpit Ground Control Station, or GCS, which features cockpit-like controls and touch-screen technology designed to simply the decision-making process for operators.

Another big player in the U.S., Northrop Grumman Corp., maker of the high-altitude Global Hawk surveillance drone and the X-47B — the first unmanned aircraft to land aboard a moving aircraft carrier — won’t be participating in this year’s show, a spokesman said.

The Falls Church, Virginia-based contractor made the decision several years ago to pursue interests in other markets.

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