Saturday, 1 December 2012


PARIS (AP) -- A pan-European stealth combat drone demonstrator has taken its first test flight in southern France.

French defense company Dassault-Aviation is lead contractor on the "Neuron" project launched in 2005 involving firms from France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Greece and Switzerland to provide a test bed for developing future combat aircraft.

Its successful flight took place Saturday near Istres.

Program officials say the Neuron is not a prototype, but aims to help European countries explore stealth technology for possible use - years from now - in future drones or successors of fighters like the Eurofighter or France's Rafale. The program will also seek innovations like the release of air-to-surface weapons from an internal bay.

Many experts believe armed drones will play an increasing role in the future of air combat.

As a UCAV, Neuron will be significantly larger and more advanced than other well-known UAV systems like the MQ-1/RQ-1 Predator UAV, with payloads and capabilities that begin to approach manned fighter aircraft. Illustrations, initial builds, and statements by the consortium partners indicate that the Neuron is envisioned as a stealth attack and reconnaissance UCAV in the same class as Northrop-Grumman’s X-47B N-UCAS, and Boeing’s privately-developed X-45 Phantom Ray.
As one can see, the Saab concept, and Dassault’s mock-ups and graphics bear a strong resemblance to Boeing’s X-45C, and indeed to designs like Russia’s MiG-SKAT. This is partly the result of similar design pressures, which emphasize maximum stealth due to the UCAVs’ low situational awareness, and lack of self-defense capabilities. Data from Saab and Alenia indicates that the Neuron demonstrator measures 9-10m long by 12-13m wide, and weighs in at 5 tons, with a maximum speed of Mach 0.8, and 100 minutes of loiter time at 100 km distance. This is roughly the size of a F-16 fighter (15m x 10m, 4.25 tons empty), but smaller than an F-117 Nighthawk (19m x 13m, 7 tons empty), and with less range and loiter than most UCAVs envisage.

nEUROn’s Turbomeca/ Rolls Royce Adour Mk 951 is the latest variant of the non-reheated turbofan engine that has already been selected by the UK, South Africa and Bahrain to power the latest BAE Hawk trainer and light attack aircraft. The Mk 951 offers increased (6,500 vs. 5,845 pounds) thrust and performance, a high-performance Electronic Engine Control Unit (EECU), and extended life with reduced life cycle costs. The Adour engine family is installed in Hawk, Jaguar, and Mitsubishi T-1/F2 aircraft operated by 22 military forces around the world, and has accumulated over 7 million flying hours world-wide.
The aircraft will have unmanned autonomous air-to-ground attack capabilities with precision-guided munitions, relying on an advanced stealth airframe design that reduces radar and infrared cross-sections to penetrate undetected. Dassault has said that other payloads, such as reconnaissance devices, will be validated at a later stage.
The UCAV system is also envisioned as working with manned fighters, but the details remain to be seen. The ability to control a nEUROn swarm flight in automatic mode from an advanced fighter like the Dassault Rafale or JAS-39 Gripen remains under consideration, but is far from certain. Readers who play real-time strategy computer games are already familiar with the ability to group drone units and to control the group, but adapting that to real life is somewhat more complex.

Neuron: The Program

Program Goals

Logiduc UCAV Demonstrator
Logiduc UCAV design
(click to view full)
During the 2003 Paris Air Show, French Minister of Defense Michele Alliot-Marie announced a major agreement signed between EADS, Dassault Aviation, and Thales. The agreement covered a joint-venture to “realize a new unmanned military technology that covers all future activity in combat and strategic reconnaissance aeronautics.” EADS currently leads a HALE (High Altitude, Long Endurance) UAV project, and a manned/unmanned maritime surveillance project is also in progress based on work done by Thales, Dassault, and Elbit Systems.
The Neuron UCAV program, meanwhile, is led by the French DGA defense procurement agency. DGA acts as the program executive on behalf of the participating countries, and has entrusted development of the first Neuron UCAV demonstrator to Dassault Aviation and its European partners. These include SAAB (Sweden) in particular, HAI (Greece), Alenia (Italy), EADS-CASA (Spain), and RUAG Aerospace (Switzerland).
As the excellent AFCEA Signal Magazine article “Neuron Gains Altitude” noted in September 2005, the program has three stated goals:
  1. The first is to maintain and develop the skills of the participating European aerospace companies’ design offices, which will not see any other new fighter programs before 2030 now that the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter projects are all complete or well underway.
  2. The second goal is to investigate and validate the technologies that will be needed by 2015 to design next-generation combat aircraft.
  3. The final aim is to validate an innovative cooperation process by establishing a European industry team responsible for developing next-generation combat aircraft.

Indeed, Dassault’s June 12/05 press kit goes out of its way to note that this is not a military program:
“Son objectif n’est pas d’effectuer des missions militaires, mais de demontrer la maturite et l’efficacite de solutions techniques…. Le projet nEUROn n’a pas pour objectif de developper de nouvelles armes…. Il devra valider certaines technologies en faisant appel a un systeme d’avionique modulaire fiable… ainsi que sur des logiciels de haut niveau. Il est clair qu’a travers des missions de demonstration, l’objectif est de demontrer la validite de technologies de commandement et de controle d’un vehicule sans pilote d’une taille equivalente a celui d’un avion de combat, avec tous les modes de secours necessaires assurant la securite requise.”
Trans: “Our objective is not to execute military missions, but to demonstrate the maturity and effectiveness of key technologies…. The nEUROn project is not about developing new weapons…. Rather, it will validate certain technologies and demonstrate reliable modular avionics and control systems… similar to modern high level technologies. The goal is to demonstrate the ability to operate a pilotless vehicle with capabilities that approach a manned fighter, with all of the pieces in place to assure safe operations.”
Of course, if the resulting UCAV passes all tests, rapid adaptation of a military variant, or follow-on tests around carrier-based operations, might follow if orders were forthcoming.

Industrial Partners

Neuron UCAV Saab Concept
Saab concept
(click to view full)
Chief nEUROn project manager Thierry Prunier comes from Dassault Aviation, and the deputy project managers are Mats Ohlson of Saab and Ermanno Bertolina of Alenia. There is just one link between the executive agency (DGA) and the prime contractor (Dassault), and it will be up to the executive agency to coordinate with the government agencies of the participating countries. It will be up to the prime contractor, meanwhile, to coordinate the work with the other companies.
Work breakdowns among those companies are as follows. Each industrial partner retains design rights for its specific contribution:
The nEUROn Partnership

Program Budgets & Schedules

Mock-Up: Paris A.S. 2005
(click to view full)
According to prime contractor Dassault Aviation, the French government will provide half of the program’s EUR 400 million ($480 million) budget, while the remaining funds will be supplied by the other participating member nations.
More precise reports place France’s share of the development funding at about EUR 185 million. Sweden’s share would be SEK 750 million (EUR 80 million at then-current conversion), of which SEK 600 million (EUR 64 million) would be financed by Saab AB. The Swedish FMV procurement agency will offset Saab’s costs, however, with an equal contribution to future development of the Saab JAS-39 Gripen manned lightweight fighter. The cost of Spain’s participation to the program is estimated at EUR 35.5 million, spread over the 2007-2012 period.
nEUROn Timeline
The program’s Feasibility Phase contract kicked off a 4 1/2 year system definition and design phase with related low-observability (stealth) studies.
The 15-month, EUR 405 million Feasibility Phase explored technology roadmaps in stealth, flight control of a rudderless airframe, open modular avionics, and development of internal weapon bays. Wind tunnel testing, radar measurements, technology testing in labs, and off-the-shelf equipment selection helped define the UCAV’s external shape, expected stealth materials, avionics architecture, and engine (the Turbomeca/Rolls Royce Adour Mk951).

The Definition Phase (EUR 130 million) worked to validate the design, “freeze” the shapes of the demonstrator aircraft, and detail its component systems and their interfaces.
nEUROn is currently in the Development and Assembly Phase. The 1st prototype was officially rolled out in January 2012, with a first flight that has slipped from the first half of 2011 to mid-2012. The 2-year flight test program is still scheduled to begin from Istres, France in mid-2012, with down-time for full-scale radar signature testing in a French anechoic chamber, followed by 2nd and 3rd-phase flight tests in Sweden and Italy. The test program is scheduled to involve about 100 sorties, including the launch of a laser-guided bomb. Weapons release was originally scheduled for 2012, but will probably take place in 2013 or even 2014.

Contracts & Key Events

2011 – 2012

(click for video)
Jan 20/12: Rollout! The nEUROn European UCAV technology demonstrator is officially presented to the representatives of the 6 participating countries by Dassault Aviation. Dassault:
“The first engine tests will be performed very soon, aiming at a first flight mid-2012. Afterwards, a complete sequence of test flights will take place during two years in France, Sweden and Italy. These tests will address flight qualities, stealthiness, air-to-ground weapon firing from an internal bay, integration into a C4i environment as well as the [safe] insertion of uninhabited platform in [controlled] airspace.”
At present, software integration is in its final stage, using the “global integration tests” rig in Istres, France. The first ground tests for hydraulics, electrical, fuel, etc. have taken place, with comprehensive engine tests to follow, as noted above. See also French DGA [in French].
nEUROn rollout
nEUROn: takeoff concept
(click to view full)
July 8/11: Germany. Aviation Week reports on Germany’s high-end UAV plans, beyond its planned 6 RQ-4 Euro-Hawk surveillance and SIGINT drones. The publication states that Germany is looking to buy 4 UAVs for wide-area surveillance, probably more RQ-4 variants, in order to complement NATO’s 6 RQ-4B Block 40 AGS drones. They’re also looking at fielding 16 systems of MALE drones over the next decade, to replace the current Heron UAV lease.
Farther into the future, Germany is reportedly considering UCAVs. The nEUROn program is the most likely beneficiary if Germany goes ahead, with possible competition from American offerings like Boeing’s X-45 Phantom Ray, Northrop Grumman’s X-47B UCAS-D, and/or General Atomics’ jet-powered Predator C Avenger.

July 7/11: At the 2011 Paris Air Show, Dassault Aviation presented enterprise applications using the future Samsung Sur40 tactile table for Microsoft Surface. These include military mission planning, and it will be interesting to see if this technology is used for operational components of the nEUROn system. Dassault Aviation [in French] | Reuters.
July 1/11: Dassault releases photos of nEUROn in final assembly, with all sub-assemblies delivered and the program on schedule. AIN quotes Dassault SVP of UAV/UCAV Programs, Thierry Prunier, as saying that although only one UCAV is being completed for flight test, up to 4 examples of each subassembly have been built.
The non-flying subassemblies are currently being used for “real hardware-in-the-loop” tests at 4 pre-integration rigs: Saint-Cloud, France (flight control) system; 2 in Getafe, Spain (ground control, datalink management); and Linköping, Sweden (avionics). Meanwhile, the Adour Mk951 turbofan engine has been matched to the nozzle, and run for 50 hours under control of the Flight Control System.
Prunier also confirmed to AIN that each industrial partner retains design rights for its specific contribution. That will matter if Britain, Germany, and other nations wish to join. AIN
May 19/11: Sub-contractors. Alenia Aeronautica announces delivery of the nEUROn’s Weapon Bay Doors & Mechanism to the Dassault plant in Istres, France, following successful acceptance checks.
This stealth-maintaining system was designed, built and integrated entirely by Alenia Aeronautica, and includes both the weapon housing doors and their activation and control system. The assembly uses manufacturing techniques that were new to the company, and Alenia Aeronautica has even patented the design for the “seal” around their perimeter.
Jan 25/11: Sub-contractors. Saab AB officially delivers nEUROn front and central fuselage sections to Dassault Aviation, at its Linkoping facility. They will now be transported to Dassault’s site in Istres, France, which is preparing for final assembly.
The rear fuselage section arrived at Istres in mid-January from HAI in Greece, and future deliveries will provide most of the major components needed for assembly. Dassault itself is delivering stealth related parts to Istres from January – March 2011. RUAG’s ordnance release pantograph will arrive from Switzerland by the end of February 2011. March 2011 will see deliveries of the 2 half-wings from EADS-CASA in Spain, and the 2 weapon bay doors from Italy’s Alenia. Saab’s next big delivery is in April 2011, when they will ship the 3 landing gear doors from Linkoping, Sweden.
Final layout, piping, electrical wiring and equipment fitting, and assembly are expected to be finished by last quarter of 2011. The next step after that is ground tests, followed by the first engine run-up by end 2011, and hopefully a maiden flight in mid-2012. Saab/ Dassault release.

2008 – 2010

nEUROn concept
Dassault concept
(click to view full)
Jan 20/09: Progress report. Dassault Aviation discusses progress to date on the nEUROn program. At present, 85% of the total budget has been awarded to Industry by France’s DGA. All major nEUROn systems underwent design reviews in 2008, and interface design is almost complete, paving the way for more detailed work on the systems and airframe.
That airframe shape is now final. Switzerland’s Ruag carried out 2 specific wind tunnel tests in 2008. The first helped identify the conditions which could affect aerodynamics when the vehicle is near the ground (ground effect), while the second analyzed the consequences of a bird strike on the leading edge of the wing. Results of these tests were very positive, enabling engineers to freeze the final shape of the vehicle.
Industrial work is also proceeding on critical subassemblies. Dassault Aviation’s experimental development center at Argenteuil has produced an inlet demonstrator, while its Biarritz plant is making a complete leading edge section, about 2 m/ 6 feet long. Saab is beginning to make aluminum ribs. Greece’s HAI has assembled a complete engine exhaust nozzle, which is to be mated to a Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour jet engine for mechanical and integration tests this month. Dassault release.
Nov 19/08: Sub-contractors. Saab Group announces that production of the unmanned Neuron craft has just begun at Tjust Mekaniska in Sweden, a small company with approximately 50 employees and a turnover of about SEK 50 million. They have been commissioned by Saab to manufacture 8 aluminum ribs making up the frame for the Neuron hull. Peter Svensson from Saab Aerostructures:
“The plan is to have most of the component manufactured parts ready in time for the European 2009 summer holiday, in time for the hull assembly to begin.”
Tjust Mekaniska uses a large German CNC machine that works directly from a 3D drawing program, and mills the outline of the Neuron rib at a speed of 24,000 rpm, using water to cool the operation. The excess aluminium flakes are pressed together and sold for recycling.
Oct 10/08: AVE-C scale demonstrator. As part of tests of new control surfaces, a Dassault AVE-C drone flight tests yaw control using thrust vectoring.
June 30/08: AVE-C scale demonstrator. Dassault’s AVE-C drone (Aeronefs de Validation Experimentale) completes its first fully autonomous demonstration flight near Toul, France. The jet powered UAV performed a completely automated flight sequence: roll from parking spot, runway alignment, takeoff, in-flight maneuvers, landing, braking and rolling back to the parking apron. The flight was watched by representatives of France’s Delegation Generale pour l’Armement (DGA) procurement agency.
The demonstration flight of this scale model demonstrator is one of the development milestones for nEUROn’s key technologies. Defense Update.
Scaled AVE-C flight

2006 – 2007

Dassault concept
nEUROn swarm
(click to view full)
June 19/07: Bambino di nEUROn? Alenia Aeronautica, Dassault, and Saab sign an MoU to develop a Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) UAV system. nEUROn program technologies, tools, and partnership models will all be re-used in this program. Full DID coverage. As of 2012, it hasn’t advanced very far.
June 12/07: Project definition order. France’s DGA defense procurement agency officially notifies the Neuron Strategic Board of a EUR 130 million contract (about $175 million) for the nEUROn project definition phase. The definition phase will last 19 months, and aims to validate the design, “freeze” the shapes of the demonstrator aircraft, and detail its component systems and their interfaces. Ministere de la Defense release.
Definition phase
April 10/07: Sub-contractors. A Saab release says that a Neuron model has been installed on a 1:16 scale in the wind tunnel belonging to the Forces Research Institute (FOI:s) in Stockholm, and adds that testing is now underway to verify the outer shape and design. The testing involves high speed trials and testing at levels up to the speed of sound, in order to verify that the aircraft can be controlled and steered inside the entire flight envelope. The model in the picture looks substantially similar to artists’ conceptions done to date. Saab release
April 10/07: Progress report. At the same time as the high speed testing at FOI, low speed testing is being carried out in France. Indeed, a Dassault release says that “With the positive results gained all along these different tests, nEUROn shapes are validated and almost frozen.” It notes the following milestones:
  • Preliminary test in June 2005.
  • 2 low speed tests at Emmen in Switzerland in 2006 in partnership with RUAG Aerospace.
  • 3 air intake tests in 2006 and 2007 at S2 ONERA Modane in France.
  • 1 low speed test in March 2007 at F1 ONERA Fauga in France.
Oct 11/06: Sub-contractors. Safran group subsidiary Turbomeca announces that Dassault Aviation has ordered two Adour Mk 951 engines and associated support, from the RRTMjoint venture between Turbomeca and Rolls Royce. The first Adour Mk 951 will be delivered mid 2008 for ground testing, while the second (spare engine) is scheduled to be delivered at the end of 2010 for the flight test program. The release describes the deliveries as a “rental contract.”
The Adour Mk 951 is the latest variant of the non-reheated turbofan engine that has already been selected by the UK, South Africa and Bahrain to power the latest BAE Hawk trainer and light attack aircraft. The Mk 951 offers increased (6,500 vs. 5,845 pounds) thrust and performance, a high-performance Electronic Engine Control Unit (EECU), and extended life with reduced life cycle costs. The Adour engine family is installed in Hawk, Jaguar, and Mitsubishi T-1/F2 aircraft operated by 22 military forces around the world, and has accumulated over 7 million flying hours to date world-wide.
Sept 12/06: Program Review. The first intermediate synthesis review of the nEUROn program took place on Sept 6-7/06 at Dassault Aviation facilities in Saint-Cloud, France. The results of the initial 6 months of feasibility studies were presented to the program’s executive (France’s DGA), and to representatives from other participating governments (Segredifesa, FMV, DGAM, GDA and Armasuisse).
The session’s focus was on the external shape of the vehicle and systems, which stem from the necessary tradeoffs to fulfill the performance, low observability/ stealth, and independent flyability requirements of the specifications. See Dassault release.
Program review
May 23/06: Study delivered. Dassault Aviation and its partners Alenia, SAAB, EADS CASA, HAI and RUAG delivered yesterday the first nEUROn study to the DGA ahead of schedule. This first step is the preliminary technical definition of the project.
Feb 10/06: Initial development contract. nEUROn program launched with committed funding of EUR 405 million.
Project launch

Thunder or Echo? Britain’s Taranis UCAV

Britain is also working on a stealthy UCAV design powered by an Adour jet engine, and named after the Celtic god of thunder. Taranis began in 2006, with an unveiling in July 2010 and flight testing imminent. A 2010 agreement with France may have laid the ground work for Britain to merge its own project and technologies into a wider co-operative program.
Taranis unveiled
Taranis unveiled
(click to view full)
July 25/12: Following a meeting in London, defense ministers from the UK and France agree on a joint EUR 13 million (about $15.7 million) UCAV research study by BAE (Taranis) and Dassault (nEUROn lead). A coming contract will link Rolls-Royce, whose Adour engine powers both Taranis and nEUROn, with France’s Safran in a joint study for future UCAV engine options.
They also confirm that France will buy 1 WK450B Watchkeeper system for operational assessments and trials in 2012 and 2013. What did not happen, is any kind of collaboration announcement on an Anglo-French medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV like BAE & Dassault’s Telemos. Defense News | BAE Systems | Thales Group.
Joint UCAV study
July 9/12: Good news, Bad news. BAE announces that Taranis has gone beyond the stealthy targets set for the program, according to recently completed radar cross section tests at BAE Systems’ Warton site. Engine testing at Rolls Royce was also encouraging, demonstrating Taranis’ reduced infra-red signature. The bad news? The ministry wants more tests now, which will delay flight trials to 2013.
June 29/12: NAVSOP. BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre discusses research it’s doing into Navigation via Signals of Opportunity (NAVSOP), which could become critical to UCAVs. GPS can be blocked or spoofed, and inertial navigation is imprecise unless it can be re-calibrated once in a while. NAVSOP exploits existing transmissions such as Wi-Fi, TV, radio, mobile phone, Low-Earth-Orbit satellites, and other civilian signals to calculate its position. The wide range it exploits would make it very hard to jam, and would allow it to work even in environments where a GPS signal would fail.
NAVSOP has a number of potential military uses, but it’s ideal for a UCAV that must navigate correctly in the most hostile environments. This may be why BAE’s NAVSOP infographic has a Taranis UCAV at its center.
Feb 17/12: Anglo-French UCAS. Britain & France follow up on their Nov 2/10 cooperation statement with an underwhelming announcement: they’ll commission a study about a next-generation UAV, and France will evaluate Britain’s smaller Watchkeeper MK450B:
“7. Following an analysis of lessons identified, we have decided to prioritise our joint work in the key areas of: command and control; information systems; intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance; and precision munitions….
16. Unmanned air systems are crucial to success in the battlefield, as the Libya and Afghanistan campaigns have shown. We have agreed today to take forward our planned cooperation on UAS within a long term strategic partnership framework aimed at building a sovereign capability shared by our two countries…. We affirm our common will to undertake in 2013 a joint Future Combat Air System Demonstration Programme that will set up a co-operation of strategic importance for the future of the European Combat Air Sector. This work will provide a framework to mature the relevant technologies and operational concepts for a UCAS operating in a high threat environment. We will begin as soon as 2012 the specification of this demonstrator with a jointly funded contract under the industrial leadership of our national fighter aircraft industries (Dassault-Aviation in France and BAE Systems in the UK).”
Defense-Aerospace later reports that a EUR 10 million study will fund initial specifications, to define the nEUROn demonstrator’s follow-on platform. BAE and Dassault are already collaborating on France’s future medium/ hunter-killer UAV, and “Telemos” is based on BAE’s Mantis. The UCAS would feature the same players, but is likely to place Dassault in more of a lead role. BAE is building Taranis, but the Dassault-led nEUROn project has ambitious goals, and there are substantial advantages to a UCAS platform definition that makes it easy for other European countries to join. UK Prime Minister | Defense Aerospace.
Nov 2/10: UK-France. The “UK–France Summit 2010 Declaration on Defence and Security Co-operation” includes a proviso regarding UCAVs:
“17. In the longer term, we will jointly assess requirements and options for the next generation of Unmanned Combat Air Systems from 2030 onwards. Building on work already started under the direction of the UK-France High Level Working Group, we will develop over the next two years a joint technological and industrial roadmap. This could lead to a decision in 2012 to launch a joint Technology and Operational Demonstration programme from 2013 to 2018.”
It remains to be seen how this will play out. BAE Systems is reportedly in talks with Dassault, but the subject of those talks isn’t yet clear. BAE’s Mantis is arguably a UCAV, in the same class as the MQ-9 Reaper. The joint TOD program in question could refer to the Mantis, but item 16. refers to a MALE (Predator Class) UAV. While the UK is set with its Watchkeeper/Hermes 450B systems, France needs to replace its Harfang systems, and appears to be looking for ordnance capabilities that Watchkeeper doesn’t have. Mantis could fill that role, while item 17. would address the niche filled by the Dassault-led nEUROn and BAE’s Taranis stealth UCAV demonstrator, which was unveiled in July 2010.
If item 17. is about stealth UCAVs, leaving nEUROn to pursue joint development around Taranis isn’t an option for France. A parallel carrier-capable UCAV development program might be a joint option, similar to the USA’s X-47B N-UCAS or General Atomics’ Sea Avenger, but that would strain budgets in both countries. The path of least resistance for a 2013-2018 TOD program is incorporation of the UK into nEUROn, with BAE Systems bringing key Taranis technologies and lessons learned into the development program. Time will tell. See also: Flight International |Reuters | Usine Nouvelle [in French]
July 12/10: Taranis. The UK Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems unveil their Taranis stealth UCAV technology demonstrator prototype at Warton, UK. Flight trials are due in 2011.
Taranis is a separate UK-only program, but subsequent events may make this milestone meaningful to nEUROn as well. UK MoDBAE Systems | Flight International.
Taranis unveiled

Additional Readings & Sources

Additional Readings & Sources: Other UCAVs

  • Dassault Aerospace – Logiduc program. The precursor to the Neuron. The Petit Duc (AVE-D) was the first stealth unmanned aircraft to fly in Europe on July 18th 2000. The Grand Duc would become the multinational nEUROn program. The model pictured in the stealth testing chamber is a Logiduc mock-up.
  • Saab – SHARC Program. In many ways, SHARC was a precursor to its work on Neuron, and one of the main reasons it has a leading role alongside Dassault.