Franco-British cooperation in the field of unmanned aviation could quickly expand, with government and industry eyeing opportunities to jointly pursue tactical systems.

Underpinning the entire initiative is an effort in Paris and London to make their dwindling defense dollars go further by working together more closely. The flagship of Franco-British industrial cooperation so far is the BAE Systems-Dassault effort to meet a two-nation requirement for a medium-extended long-endurance system, now called Telemos. A joint requirements document and acquisition strategy is pending.

But cooperation may not end there. BAE and Dassault see opportunities for a successful Telemos effort to lead to cooperation in the unmanned combat aircraft realm, while Thales officials see room to expand the activity into the tactical unmanned aerial system (UAS) domain. The vision would see France embrace the Watchkeeper program now in development for the U.K., with France and the U.K. potentially working jointly on a vertical-takeoff-and-landing UAS (VTUAS) for ship-based use.

France is a step ahead of the U.K. in exploring its VTUAS requirements, and hopes to field a common system for the army for land-based applications (SDT); naval use aboard frigates and other vessels would be another application.

To help better understand what is technically feasible, the French armaments agency (DGA) has contracted for several VTUAS demonstrations. Among them is a Thales-led effort to work with Boeing's Unmanned Littlebird (a modified AH-6i) to explore various challenging elements of VTUAS operations on land and at sea. The DGA also is working with the smaller Schiebel S-100 unmanned rotorcraft to assess its capabilities.

The Unmanned Littlebird is currently undergoing a series of flight trials that are slated to wrap up next month. The tests include landing on a sloped surface to demonstrate to the French army that the system can handle rugged terrain, says Dino Cerchie, Boeing's Unmanned Littlebird program manager.

A week ago, the Unmanned Littlebird performed its first landings on a moving platform to simulate on-deck operations. The 16 X 16-ft. platform—equipped with a NATO-standard 1.8-meter (5.9-ft.) helicopter landing grid—is towed by a truck representing speeds up to 20 kt. The demonstrations are being conducted at the commercial spaceport in New Mexico because of range considerations.

During an initial set of nine landings, the system achieved an average accuracy of tens of centimeters using Thales's automatic takeoff-and-landing system. The performance was compared to the accuracy using a differential-GPS landing system provided by Boeing, and the radar-based approach was far more accurate, says Jean-Noel Stock, head of UAV systems for Thales.

The Thales system is derived from the Magic Atols system developed by Thales for the Watchkeeper but adapted for ship-based operations. Primarily, that means it can deal with the cluttered electromagnetic environment around a ship and the vessel's pitch-and-roll movements. The modified Magic Atols uses two radars receiving a signal from a beacon on the air vehicle.

Thales and Boeing are working with DCNS to help determine ship-deck movements in high sea states. The companies also have built a moving platform to simulate deck landings. The Unmanned Littlebird will fly approaches to that platform and hover over the moving “deck,” although actual landings will not be performed.

The initial round of trials should be concluded next month. The French government then will have to decide whether it will exercise any options for another phase, during which on-ship landings would be performed, likely using a Lafayette-class frigate. Timing would be contingent on ship availability, but that demonstration would probably unfold next year.

Stock notes that one of the key efforts for Thales is to ensure commonality in the system architecture between Watchkeeper and the VTUAS concept—including the communications links, ground station and landing system—even if the air vehicles are different. Thales is trying to emphasize that commonality in light of a potential French army program to replace the interim purchase of Safran Sperwer air vehicles, which Thales hopes will lead to a French purchase of the British Watchkeeper.

These demonstrations alone may not hold the key to realizing the vision of cooperative binational initiatives. Another critical factor could be broader program execution, with the U.K., in particular, having introduced a range of acquisition-reform measures to rid itself of troubled and costly development efforts.

Watchkeeper has suffered its share of problems. Fielding of the system is now more than a year late, forcing the U.K. Defense Ministry to acquire on a fee-for-service basis gapfiller tactical unmanned aircraft capacity in the guise of the Hermes 450. That situation also led to Watchkeeper becoming one of the first military projects to come under scrutiny from the ministry's new Major Projects Review Board.

Defense Secretary Liam Fox, who chairs the board, called for the creation of the body as part of a range of acquisition-reform measures spelled out this year in Parliament. Watchkeeper is one of 50 programs to be examined overall, with a collective cost of £100 billion ($161 billion).