The Airbus-developed VSR700 optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) has managed to fully autonomously take off and land (ATOL) on a simulated moving platform as it continues to advance to shipboard trials.
The VSR700 program began in 2018 when Airbus Helicopters and Naval Group won a contract with the French DGA (Direction Générale de l’Armement) to develop a future tactical drone for the French Navy. Since then, the program has achieved many milestones in the de-risking phase, including the latest step of demonstrating the technology needed to perform an ATOL from a battleship.
“A primary challenge for any naval drone is to approach ships in heavy seas as its landing pad moves toward or away from it, on rolling swells that reduce or lengthen the relative distance,” says Nicolas Delmas, head of the VSR700 program. “Flying in such conditions, the difference of a few centimeters can determine the fate of an entire mission.”
The moving deck trials pave the way for the next major milestone – the forthcoming sea trials with the prototype, known as the SDAM (Système de Drone Aérien pour la Marine). These trials will put the vehicle’s navigation, positioning, flight control and auto-pilot systems to the ultimate test.
“Our program has a step-by-step approach with quick development loops. This involves rapidly testing new functions with the OPV to get early feedback with a safety pilot onboard for emergencies, before putting these systems on the VSR700 prototype,” says Delmas. “Whereas the VSR700 prototype focuses on the development of vehicle performances, the OPV is primarily used to develop and validate the piloting laws and dedicated ATOL functions.”
In this context, it was on the OPV that Airbus teams developed and matured the automatic flight control system (AFCS) laws which eventually enabled the prototype to achieve an ATOL from a fixed surface earlier this year.
The approach has seen positive progress: In 2018, the OPV’s first autonomous flight without a safety pilot; in 2019, the prototype’s first autonomous tethered flight; and in 2020, the first untethered flight.
And a second prototype is on the way. Earlier this year, a second SDAM was ordered for the French Navy in the frame of the French stimulus plan, enabling the program to further secure next steps, such as the development of technologies and refinement of specifications.
The VSR700, derived from Hélicoptères Guimbal’s Cabri G2, is an unmanned aerial system in the 500-1000 kg maximum take-off weight range. It is capable of carrying multiple full-size naval sensors for extended periods and can operate from existing ships, alongside a helicopter, with a low logistical footprint.