German Navy buys unmanned helicopters

The Defence Ministry is equipping five corvettes with helicopter drones. This could bring a procurement process that has been going on for 13 years to an end.

Last week, the German Bundestag passed a bill for the „Eurodrone“, a far-reaching drone project. Under the leadership of Airbus, defence companies from Germany, France and Italy are to develop and mass-produce a drone weighing around 11 tonnes for almost four billion euros. It can be used for reconnaissance, interception and attacks.

Also on the agenda of the Budget and Defence Committee, but with less fanfare, was the procurement of a naval drone. In the AImEG project („Reconnaissance and Identification in the Maritime Operational Area“), the Ministry of Defence has been planning since the noughties to equip its then new „Braunschweig-class“ corvettes type K130 with helicopter drones. They are to reconnoitre so-called „overwater contacts“ at a distance of up to 40 nautical miles (about 74 kilometres) and be used, for example, for boarding ships. For this purpose, the aircraft are equipped with digital cameras and infrared sensors.

Take-off weight of around 200 kilograms

Like the Eurodrone, the German Bundestag also approved the rotorcraft project. For 78 million euros, two of the current five „K130“ corvettes will initially be equipped with a complete unmanned system. Its first batch consists of two drones of the type „Skeldar V-200“, a control station that is mounted on the ships as well as an encrypted transmission of the transmitted reconnaissance data. It is powered by a two-cylinder engine and has a maximum take-off weight of 235 kg. Its flight altitude can reach 3,000 metres, the drone stays in the air for up to six hours.

The Skeldar V-200 comes from the Swedish company UMS, which belongs to Saab’s defence division. For the German Navy it flies under the name „Sea Falcon“. The main contractor is the company ESG Elektroniksystem- und Logistik-GmbH, which is in charge of numerous Bundeswehr armament projects.

The Bremen-based Lürssen shipyard, as the manufacturer of the ships, is responsible for fitting the Sea Falcons into the hangars of the K130. This accounts for two thirds of the estimated costs for the project. The integration of the military software and hardware is being handled by the Bavarian company Cuonics. As usual, the pilot phase of the project will be accompanied by the Bundeswehr service provider IABG, which will incur additional costs.

Procurement delayed for years

In a second phase starting in 2023, the remaining three corvettes will also be prepared for the deployment of helicopter drones. Then the Ministry of Defence will procure two more drone systems that can be distributed among the ships as needed. For training purposes, the Navy is also buying a simulator that will be installed at the Naval Aviation Command in Nordholz near Cuxhaven.

The Sea Falcon can take off and land automatically in slightly choppy seas and wind speeds of up to 20 knots. The procedure was tested last autumn on one of the K130 frigates. The Navy’s requirements also include the guaranteed remaining of the drones in the intended area of operation. If this GPS-defined area is left, the mission is automatically aborted.

The Bundestag’s decision ends a years-long odyssey for the unmanned equipment of the K130. After initial tests in 2008, the Navy wanted to equip the ships with the „Camcopter S-100“ model from the Austrian manufacturer Schiebel. The vertical take-off drone has similar characteristics to the now selected Skeldar V-200. In 2014, however, the Ministry of Defence had suddenly withdrawn from the procurement. One of the reasons was the requirement that the naval drones be operated with the heavy fuel oil F44, which is common in the maritime industry.

Competitor abandons bid

After a ten-year delay, the Navy had again pushed for the introduction of the systems in 2018. The Ministry of Defence therefore launched the VorMUAS („Urgent Naval Unmanned Aerial System“) project, in which two Skeldar V-200s were initially acquired on a trial basis. As recently as December, the ministry confirmed that this was „not a pre-commitment“ to the model, of which six were to be finally purchased.

It is possible, however, that the Ministry of Defence preferred the Skeldar V-200 because the drone is also being examined by the Army. There, the company ESG Elektroniksystem- und Logistik uses the device for flight tests for control from a helicopter.

In the end, the company ESG submitted the only bid for the contract in the AImEG project with the Skeldar V-200. The competitor Schiebel, which was booted out in 2014, did not reapply with its Camcopter, the company writes on request. Schiebel does not have a German partner for local marketing, which is a prerequisite for the award of the contract by the Ministry of Defence. UMS, the manufacturer of the Skeldar V-200, is cooperating with the German defence company Diehl Defence for this purpose.

EU experiments on avoidance procedures

The six Skeldar V-200s are to be operated according to Category 1 of the German Armed Forces‘ „Airworthiness Requirement“. This lowest of three categories permits flight only over military training areas or in areas with flight restrictions. A licence is not required, but the drones are subject to mandatory testing.

In the future, military drones in category 3 will also be able to operate in civilian airspace. To this end, the European Defence Agency is funding experiments with a Skeldar V-200. The aim is to develop evasive procedures, as prescribed in manned aviation in the event of imminent collisions. Many manufacturers are working with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for this purpose.

In addition to all the major European defence companies, the German Aerospace Centre and the Airbus spin-off Hensoldt are also involved in the research. After the development of a corresponding standard, the drones could also be increasingly marketed for civilian applications. These include commercial flights, for example to inspect energy plants, but also missions for police and border authorities.

Image: UMS Skeldar/ Bundeswehr.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.