Is MALE 2020 the drone that Europe is looking for? (Airbus Defence and Space)

Airbus Defence and Space warns that rivals could achieve certification of MALE UAVs for civil airspace in four-to-five years, locking out Europe permanently from this giant future market. TIM ROBINSON reports.

At a recent briefing in Seville, Jens Neilsen, Head of Umanned Aerial Systems at the newly reorganised Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus D&S) said that rival General Atomics would be able to successfully achieve civil certification of its ubiquitous Predator/Reaper MALE family in "around four-to-five years" - giving it an unassailable lead in this rapidly growing industry.

Last month, Airbus D&S along with other European aerospace companies, Finmeccanica and Dassault, proposed a Euro MALE 2020 as a project that could be launched by European governments to challenge existing US/Israeli domination of the MALE sector. However, the four-to-five year civil certification timeline indicates a narrowing window of opportunity for Europe which, if missed, could see the continent left far behind in this crucial growth market.

Why is civil certification so important? Firstly as Afghanistan winds down, NATO and coalition countries will want to be able to operate their MALE UAVs in civil airspace for training purposes. Second is that there may be an expanding and lucrative civil or para-public market for this class of UAVs. Firefighting patrols at night, or surveillance of  migrants in the Mediterranean, too, could be ideal for civil MALE types with long endurance. So far, the biggest activity for civil 'drones' has been in the small multicopter sector – but as progress on integrating UAVs into airspace continues – it is likely a commercial market for MALEs too could develop.   

But will Europe miss the boat? Warning of a strategic rudderless drift, Head of Airbus D&S, Domingo Urena-Raso speaking to journalists at the media event, appeared frustrated at progress between European nations in launching fresh military aerospace projects saying: "Europe doesn't have any strategy". He noted that since the last big military project - the A400M, "nothing has happened". Indeed, he observed that in some European countries: "'Defence' is not even a word we can pronounce". 

Push or pull?

Not a good advert for Europe's UAV ambitions... (Northrop Grumman)

Indeed the search for sovereign, homegrown European UAV technology so far has had mixed results. In the UK, Watchkeeper, a converted Israeli design, looks set to miss Afghanistan after nearly a decade of development. In Germany, the expensive purchase of Northrop Grumman's Euro Hawk (with European SIGINT systems) ended in costly farce due to airspace certification issues. Though the UK and France are working on a future UCAV, the Anglo-French Telemos MALE is now regarded as dead. For Airbus D&S, its previous concept, the jet-powered Talarion attracted only lukewarm interest from European governments.

Meanwhile, European armed forces continue to buy the ubiquitous Predator and Reaper MALE products in large numbers, as well as UAVs from Israel. Airbus D&S itself produces a localised version of the Israeli Heron UAV, as well as providing support for German air force Herons in Afghanistan.

So is this another attempt by Airbus D&S, (this time with help from Dassault and Finmeccanica) to push a rebranded and modified Talarion on reluctant European governments? Domingo Urena-Raso argues it doesn't really matter: "All these programmes were pushed in the past by industry – Concorde, A300 or A400M. There are many examples of industry lobbying."

Musical chairs

Foot in both camps? Italy is keeping its options open with the Hammerhead UAV. (Piaggio Aero)  

The situation for UAVs in Europe is complicated, not only by the vertical fragmentation of the market (Airbus D&S, for example, in its portfolio has UAVs that range from microcopters to the Euro Hawk), but also the national companies and industrial footprints at stake. One example - Paris and London teaming up on UCAS has left Berlin out in the cold. Meanwhile, Finmeccanica, though it has put its name to the MALE 2020 proposal, is also involved in what might be seen as a competing project – Piaggio Aero's Hammerhead P.1HH through its Selex ES division. With no other military aerospace projects on the horizon, Europe’s aerospace industry is jostling for position on any UAV programmes as a sole hope.     

Can Europe catch up?

A400M - last airlifter standing?

A response to the proposal for a Euro MALE 2020 is expected soon from European governments. But even if a green light was given, and the project launched – could Airbus D&S and its partners catch up in time with General Atomics and IAI in the race for civil certification of MALE UAVs?

Says Jens Neilsen: "We have a product that doesn't have to be redesigned for civil certification" of the MALE 2020. Airbus D&S, Dassault and Finmeccanica, also have another advantage in decades of experience in certificating civil manned platforms they can draw on. Leveraging this, as well as drivers from manned civil and military flightdecks where automation is now starting to overlap with autonomy needed by UAVs – could be critical in 'teaching' unmanned systems 'airmanship', for example.

Finally there is an interesting lesson from history in catching up in a dominant market. The A400M was initially viewed by some as a 'me-too' product, duplicating superb US airlifter products like the C-17 and C-130. Today, the C-17 production line is set to close and while the C-130J remains popular, it is unclear how much life there remains in this 1950‘s design. This leaves, bizarrely, the US with no new airlifter in development, and the A400M set to be sole survivor in its class.


Record-breaking UAV - and from Europe. (Airbus Defence & Space)

However, with Europe still in a slump and defence budgets still constrained - will European nations stump up the cash and commitment to launch this MALE project? It may be difficult financially, but the alternative could be to concede completely any chance of breaking the market dominance of the US and Israel in this sector. Domingo Urena-Raso is determined that Europe should not fall behind: "We will be the third player."

So if MALE 2020 fails to be launched this time – is the European UAV dream completely  dead? In the words of Yoda in Return of the Jedi, "No - there is another." Interestingly in Airbus D&S's portfolio it has world-beating UAV technology that the US and Israel lacks – originally developed by QinetiQ in the UK and acquired in 2013. This is the Zephyr 7 UAV – which holds the world record for absolute endurance – two weeks aloft. This solar-powered HALE design could conceivably fly for months as an airborne relay or other persistent missions. Indeed, both Facebook and Google have recently invested in buying companies developing 'pseudo-satellite' UAVs.

This 'atmospheric satellite' may be a niche product – but in this HALE UAV it has technology that has already flown. The company has also inherited QinetiQ‘s Zephyr customers and though the company was careful not to comment who they are, it is understood that these include the US DoD. At the media briefing Airbus D&S revealed that it has launched a new enhanced version - the Zephyr 8. This features a larger wingspan, with the goal to increase the payload for a production High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS). In this UAV technology, Europe is well ahead of the US and Israel.    

But for Europe‘s MALE UAV dreams, time for a decision is fast running out.

Tim Robinson
13 June 2014