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Airbus A400M demonstrates airborne drone launch for first time

A400M launching a remote carrier surrogate drone as part of FCAS trials
Photo: Airbus

An Airbus A400M airlifter demonstrated an airborne launch of a drone recently, coming a step closer to offering a vital function for the Future Combat Air System.

During the test, an A400M deployed a drone from its opened rear cargo ramp door whilst airborne, validating its ability to air-launch drones.

In the future, such unmanned aircraft, called remote carriers, will be capable of serving as force multipliers for various missions while keeping the pilots out of harm’s way.

Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) will allow the remote carriers to operate in concert with manned aircraft, opening new fields of tactics to surprise, deceive, deter, saturate and strike opponents. This capability was already demonstrated with German Eurofighters in 2020.

During the A400M flight test, an Airbus-built Do-DT25 drone, acting as a surrogate remote carrier, was released over a test range in Northern Germany.

Shortly after the launch, the drone’s parachute opened, delivering it safely to the ground. Throughout the test, the drone was connected and transmitting data to the A400M “mother aircraft”. This data transfer illustrates how remote carriers can be connected to a combat cloud network, providing vital information by serving the role of “eyes and ears” over the battlefield, whilst also enabling them to be tasked by the manned aircraft’s operators during their missions.

Do-DT25 drone being prepared for launch. Photo: Airbus

The A400M air-launch demonstration involved a joint flight test crew from the German Air Force and Airbus. The new Modular Airborne Combat Cloud Services (MACCS), also an Airbus product, enabled full connectivity between the airlifter and the drone.

Airbus said it would continue validation of the A400M as an airborne launch platform for remote carriers, envisioning the ability to deploy large numbers of these drones. The multi-role airlifter’s large cargo bay is expected to be able to hold 40 or more drones. By bringing remote carriers closer to the fight, an A400M will provide the numbers in terms of flying platforms for a Future Combat System to serve multiple missions, even in a well-protected environment.

Airbus says the next flight test is planned to happen this year.

In addition, Airbus’ contribution to the 2021 German Air Force’s Timber Express exercise saw an important development step being cleared. A Eurofighter networking with and tasking two Do-DT25 drones in real-time, became the successful first application of MUM-T with operational military aircraft in Europe.

Previously, Airbus also demonstrated the control of five Do-DT25 drones by a mission group commander who was airborne in a manned command and control aircraft.