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Airbus Trials VSR700 ATOL Capabilities at Sea

Evaluation Under DGA SDAM Programme for French Navy

Airbus Helicopters has begun trialling autonomous take-off and landing (ATOL) capabilities at sea for the VSR700, a UAS being developed for the French Navy under the Système de drone aérien de la Marine (SDAM – Naval Aerial Drone System) conducted by the DGA, the French defence procurement and management agency, the company announced on 24 March.

Trials were conducted off Brest, using an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) based on a modified Guimbal Cabri G2, equipped with the ATOL system developed for the VSR700. This flight test campaign, conducted from a civilian vessel with a helicopter landing deck, paves the way for the upcoming demonstration of the VSR700, at sea, onboard a French frigate. “These tests in real-life conditions constitute a crucial step towards the campaign that we will conduct at sea with the DGA and the French Navy later this year,” explained Nicolas Delmas, head of the VSR700 programme for Airbus Helicopters. “Using the OPV, we have demonstrated the unique autonomous take-off and landing capabilities of the VSR700. We have also proved the optimal functioning of the vehicle and its command station interface on board a vessel in realistic conditions.

Beyond demonstrating the ATOL system developed for the VSR700, the trials were also used to assess approach procedures before landing. The VSR700 flight envelope at sea, in proximity to a vessel, was tested in line with development objectives and was confirmed to be fully compatible with naval operations. Both the semi-autonomous and the fully autonomous modes of the ATOL system were successfully demonstrated in a variety sea states. The VSR700 uses Airbus DeckFinder to enable autonomous ship deck take-off and landings in all weather conditions, by day or night. In total, 150 autonomous launch/recovery cycles were conducted and both deck handling and manoeuvring tested.

The OPV can carry a test pilot if required, to enable safer, more agile initial testing before those systems are integrated into the fully autonomous VSR700. The OPV initially conducted piloted take-offs and landings before switching progressively to fully autonomous manoeuvres.

Designed to operate alongside other naval assets, the VSR700 is a UAS in the 500-1,000kg range. It offers the best balance of payload capability, endurance and operational cost, and is capable of carrying multiple full-size naval sensors for extended periods. It can operate from existing ships, alongside a helicopter, with a low logistical footprint.

The first prototype of the VSR700 conducted its maiden flight in 2020, expanding its flight envelope the following year. In April 2021, the DGA ordered a second prototype, to focus on trials covering SDAM requirements and to allow broader, faster development towards that goal.

VSR700 undergoing performance trials off the French coast. (Airbus Helicopters)

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