The first large-scale demonstration of manned-unmanned teaming between fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and unmanned drones has been successfully run in Europe.
The military exercise, called the Multi-Domain Flight Demo (MDFD) was led Airbus and involved the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr), the Finnish Defence Forces, missile company MBDA Germany, networking data link provider Patria, autonomy and mission technology startup HAT.tec and drone launch system provider Robonic.
During the MDFD five drones, so-called remote carriers (RCs), flew ahead to penetrate enemy airspace and detect and mark ground air missile positions. The crews of the fighters then took out the hostile air defenses – precisely and without any collateral damage.
A Learjet 35 from Airbus subsidiary GFD Aviation acted as a surrogate fighter, with the crew on board commanding the RCs, five modified Airbus Do-DT25 drones. Two of them were equipped with Electronic Support Measures (ESM) sensors from MBDA to detect a fictional rogue warlord’s ground air missile positions.
The remaining three RCs were equipped with Electro Optical (EO) cameras that recorded and confirmed the locations of the air defences visually.
All assets were connected by a networking data link from Patria. Additionally, one simulated fighter acting as a command and control aircraft was visible on the screens on the ground where the contractor representatives from the German and Finnish armed forces followed the demo.
While the air defense was eliminated, ground troops requested close air support via a forward Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) to help them extract the fictional rogue warlord.
An Airbus H145M helicopter responded immediately, helping the team to achieve their mission. In parallel, the H145M teamed up with one of the EO RCs keeping to monitor the surroundings and provide the special forces with reconnaissance data.
The helicopter crew commanded the Do-DT25 directly from the cockpit while the video stream of the RC was directly transferred to the H145M.
The JTAC, located close to the troops, coordinated the attack by digital emergency notification (9-liner request) to the helicopter and partly took over command and control of one EO RC to assess the success of the operation finally.
Jean-Brice Dumont, head of military air Systems at Airbus said, “With our Multi-Domain Flight Demo we demonstrated for the first time in Europe how manned-unmanned teaming capabilities and functionalities with up to ten connected assets work in a real-life inspired scenario and under near operational conditions,”
Future Combat Air System
Airbus project manager Thomas Gottmann said, “The demonstration was an overwhelming success – the scenario went according to the plan, with the functionalities performing as intended.”
The MDFD concluded the second phase of the so-called FCAS MUM-T (Future Combat Air System Manned-Unmanned-Teaming) Demonstrator project, funded by the German procurement agency BAAINBw.
The next step for the project is to mature the existing capabilities and develop new ones to enable initial operations in the 2030s with existing combat aircraft and RCs. An initial contract to achieve this has recently been signed between Airbus and BAAINBw, as well as between MBDA and BAAINBw.
RCs with different sizes and capabilities are vital assets of FCAS, where they will operate in a team with the manned New Generation Fighter and the Eurofighter, connected to a cyber-secured combat cloud network. Working under the command of a manned fighter aircraft, RCs provide better protection for pilots while enhancing the operational envelope and the ability to act in risky situations.
“Conducting such collaborative engagements will require high levels of autonomy with only little direct and indirect human control,” said Gottman
“The MDFD is yet another example of how we push boundaries and pioneer technologies so that our customers can fulfill their missions: saving lives and ensuring a better future for us all”, added Jean-Brice Dumont. In the demo, this worked as the fictional rogue warlord is no longer a threat to the world.