In a significant milestone for unmanned aerial systems (UAS), Airbus Helicopters, in collaboration with the French Armament General Directorate (DGA), has successfully tested the operational capabilities of the VSR700 UAV from a ship at sea. This groundbreaking test marks a crucial step forward in the development of autonomous take-off and landing technologies for maritime operations.
Taking place in early May off the coast of Brittany in western France, the VSR700 demonstrated its prowess by performing 80 fully autonomous take-offs and landings from a civil vessel equipped with a helicopter deck. This test flight campaign allowed the team to evaluate the drone’s performance under operational conditions that closely resembled its future missions.
According to Nicolas Delmas, the Head of the VSR700 program at Airbus Helicopters, the test campaign proved vital in validating the drone’s excellent performance in real-world scenarios. The VSR700 prototype showcased its capabilities by opening its flight envelope in winds exceeding 40 knots, accumulating eight hours of testing across 14 flights, and successfully landing in various sea states.
The VSR700’s autonomous take-off and landing capabilities were initially put to the test in 2022 using an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) based on a modified Guimbal Cabri G2 helicopter. The test campaign, conducted with the SDAM (Système de Drone Aérien pour la Marine) demonstrator, fully validated the capabilities of the system. The SDAM study was awarded to Airbus Helicopters and Naval Group in 2017, and this recent test served to confirm the VSR700’s readiness for maritime operations.
One of the key assets enabling autonomous take-off and landing for the VSR700 is the Airbus DeckFinder system. This advanced system enables the accurate launch and recovery of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) with an astonishing precision of 10-20 centimeters, even in the face of challenging operations and harsh environmental conditions. The DeckFinder system ensures the UAV’s autonomy, independent of GNSS/GPS signals and regardless of degraded visual conditions.
This successful ship-based test campaign follows two earlier series of trials conducted by Airbus Helicopters and the DGA in late 2022 and early 2023. These trials, held at the Levant Island test center in southern France, primarily focused on assessing the VSR700’s performance and capabilities in a maritime environment. The aircraft’s handling qualities were thoroughly tested, alongside the capabilities of its sensors, which included a maritime surveillance radar, an electro-optical sensor, and an AIS receiver. Additionally, the mission system developed by Naval Group underwent rigorous evaluation during these trials.
Looking ahead, the development of the VSR700 continues with the impending maiden flight of the second prototype. Following this, the UAV will undergo flight testing onboard a French Navy FREMM vessel during the second semester of this year. These crucial next steps aim to further refine the VSR700’s operational capabilities and pave the way for its integration into naval operations.
The collaboration between Airbus Helicopters and the French Armament General Directorate (DGA) showcases their commitment to pushing the boundaries of unmanned aerial systems and revolutionizing maritime operations. The VSR700’s demonstrated capabilities in autonomous take-off and landing, coupled with its ability to perform effectively in challenging environmental conditions, highlight its potential for various mission scenarios, including maritime surveillance, search and rescue operations, and logistical support. With further development and integration into naval operations, the VSR700 promises to enhance operational efficiency, safety, and versatility in maritime environments, opening up new possibilities for unmanned systems in the defense sector and beyond.