A team of engineers and technicians from the French Defense procurement agency (DGA)’s test centers conducted a test campaign at the DGA Missile Testing site on the Ile du Levant (Mediterranean Sea), in close collaboration with industry teams.
The SDAM risk assessment study was awarded to Airbus Helicopters and Naval Group in 2017. It aims to prepare the production of a VTOL UAV capable of being launched from naval assets of the French Navy (for example, multi-mission frigates – FREMM) and to fly for eight hours while carrying two main payloads up to 150 km range.
The SDAM is based on the VSR-700 drone, which is derived from the Cabri G2 light helicopter produced by the Aix-Les-Milles-based French SME Guimbal. It is currently outfitted with a maritime surveillance radar, an AIS receiver (transponder-based ship location system), and the performance of an optronic ball optimized for use in the marine environment.
The existing industrial work has concentrated on one of the most significant technical risks, which is the ability to take off and land on these assets completely automatically, in sea conditions equivalent to those acceptable by the currently manned helicopters in service (NH90, Panther Standard 2), i.e. sea level 5. More than 130 landings on a civilian vessel in significant sea conditions in March 2022 demonstrated that the system takes off and lands fully autonomously.
This technological capability is a significant advancement and a world first for a drone in this category.
More than 25 engineers and technicians from the DGA and the industry, including Airbus Helicopters, Naval Group, and DIADES (for the maritime radar), checked the correct technical operation of the demonstrator in maritime overflight during five flights totaling nine hours from December 7 to 15, 2022. This test campaign brings the total number of flight hours completed as part of the SDAM risk removal study to more than 240 hours spread across more than 160 flights. Following the success of the automatic take-off and landing campaign conducted at sea from a civilian vessel in the first quarter of 2022, the transition to a test phase on board a French Navy frigate is authorized.
Thus, the VSR-700 has reached an important milestone in its development and will now be tested by French Navy FREMM Frigate Provence in March 2023. These future tests will bring the SDAM program’s risk removal phase to a close, allowing for its production launch.
About VSR-700 Naval VTOL UAV
The VSR700 has been selected as the demonstrator for the for the French Navy’s “Système de Drone Aérien pour la Marine” or SDAM programme. According to the French military planning law (LPM), 15 SDAM systems are set to be delivered to the French Navy from 2028. They will be deployed aboard the future frigates of the French Navy, the FDI as well as the FREMM.
A first SDAM demonstrator is currently being prepared through a de-risking contract signed at the end of 2017. This contract signed by Airbus and Naval Group also involves French SME and in particular Hélicoptères Guimbal, which produces the Cabri G2 helicopter, from which the SDAM is derived. An additional SDAM demonstrator was ordered last year. This second VSR700 will enable the programme to further secure the next steps, and in particular the development of technologies and the refinement of specifications to meet the French Navy’s operational requirements.
The VTOL UAV made its maiden flight on November 8. 2019 at the Aix-en-Provence drone test center (south of France). Several test captive flights were successfully performed on an enhanced version of the UAV.
The VSR700 has a maximum take-off weight between 500 and 1000 kg, Airbus stated. The VSR700 capabilities are not officially known, but is expected to « automatically land and take-off, fly for ten hours at 100 Nm and carry 100 kilos of payload, i.e. radar and optronics.
Naval News visited last year the Airbus Helicopters site in Aix-en-Provence to learn about the VSR700. Nicolas Delmas, VSR700 program director, answered our questions: