COLOGNE, Germany — German defense contractor Hensoldt is banking on its own detect-and-avoid sensor to emerge as the product of choice for the multinational Eurodrone and other unmanned aircraft developed on the continent, according to company executives.
Engineers expect to test their active electronically scanning array radar in conjunction with an autopilot system during tests this summer under an initiative led by the civilian German Aerospace Center, or DLR in German. The goal is to determine how data picked up by the sensor in the manned test aircraft’s nose cone can trigger the autopilot to initiate a successful collision-avoidance sequence.
Such safety features are essential requirements for integrating manned and unmanned flight in the same airspace — a stated goal of new drone developments. Most notably, the European medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted air system, dubbed Eurodrone for short, is slated to have a certification for civilian airspace integration built in from the start.
Larger passenger aircraft use transponders to notify others of their position, and collision-avoidance systems exist for cases in which two aircraft with such equipment installed get too close to one another. Dealing with aircraft, including drones, that lack these features remains an unsolved problem.
Hensoldt is among a raft of European defense electronics companies participating in the European Detect and Avoid System, or EUDAAS, effort sponsored by the European Union. It belongs to a collection of mini-projects under the European Defence Industrial Development Programme, meant to push industry-driven approaches to Europe’s defense problems.
While Swedish company Saab has the lead for EUDAAS, Hensoldt hopes its sensor components will be front and center when the project reaches the stage of initial test flights around 2023. That timeline roughly fits into the envisioned Eurodrone schedule, which expects to see a first flight of the aircraft two years or so later.
Nationally, Hensoldt’s work on a detect-and-avoid system is sponsored by civilian agencies like DLR and the German economic ministry. But there is a written agreement that any insights can flow toward the German Defence Ministry’s acquisition arm, said Dietmar Klarer, the company’s chief of radar concepts. “The applications really are very intertwined,” he said in an interview.
One of the deliverables under the EUDAAS project is hammering out standards for what happens in the final moments leading up to a potential collision, Klarer explained. For example, to what extent can a dodging sequence be automated, and when can human operators on the ground still interfere in the process?
The project explicitly sets out to solve the drone-integration problem for the skies above Europe. It unites many of the continent’s big industrial players in defense communications, sensors and computing, including Indra, Leonardo, Thales, Safran and Diehl.
The leaves the question of how the EU will deal with similar efforts developed in North America. Aviation authorities in the United States, Canada and Europe have a history of acknowledging each others’ safety-related technology under certain conditions.
A direct transfer of a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration certificate to European authorities would benefit General Atomics, for example. The company is on contract to deliver derivatives of its MQ-9B Sky Guardian to the U.K. and EU member Belgium.
The decision to adopt the relevant U.S. approvals surrounding the drones’ detect-and-avoid equipment would fall first to the individual nations for their respective airspace, around 2023 for Britain, a company official explained. The question would then bubble up to EU authorities on whether to follow suit.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News.