Dassault Aviation announced that last month it came a step closer to making science fiction reality when it conducted a formation flight of the nEUROn unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) with a Rafale fighter and a Falcon 7X business jet. The flight off the coast of the south of France took place on March 20, and for almost two hours the nEUROn kept station with the other planes as they flew over the several hundred kilometers out over the Mediterranean. According to Dassault, this was the first time an unmanned combat aircraft achieved formation flight.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) have come a long way in the past couple of decades, but they still have some trouble areas that keep them from becoming really practical. One is that no matter how sophisticated the sensors or complex the algorithms, a UAV can’t glance over its shoulder or catch a movement out of the corner of its eye. That means that UAVs have a lot of trouble with situational awareness. In other words, they can’t tell where other planes are. This makes for general safety issues and makes the formation flying that’s key to military operations especially difficult.
The March demonstration involved a carefully planned close formation flying maneuver with the nEUROn, the Rafale, the Falcon X, and two camera chase planes, where each flew in a planned sequence while keeping station in relation to one another. This required the engineers to not only make sure that the nEUROn could detect the other planes and stay out of their way, but also be able to deal with turbulence, and electromagnetic interference that poses a risk of disrupting communications between the UCAV and ground control.
The Dassault nEUROn UCAV made its first flight in December 2012 as a technology demonstrator dedicated to advanced avionics with aim of developing new methods of high-level flight control and stealth, and the ability to launch air-to-ground weapons from an internal bay. It’s built by Dassault Aviation as prime contractor along with Alenia Aermacchi (Italy), Saab (Sweden), EADS-CASA (Spain), Hellenic Aerospace Industry (Greece), RUAG (Switzerland), and Thales (France), and has so far undergone several dozen test flights.
Measuring 9.2 m (30 ft) long and boasting a wingspan of 12.5 m (41 ft), the nEUROn is the first large size stealth platform designed in Europe. Powered by a Rolls-Royce Turbomeca "Adour" engine, it has an empty weight of 5 tons (4.5 tonnes) and a maximum weight of 7 tons (6.3 tonnes).