MADRID --- Airbus Defense and Space is preparing to return to the UAV market, three years after it was forced out by the reluctance of the French and German governments to financially support any of the unmanned aircraft projects which it had developed.
“We are revisiting our strategy on unmanned aerial vehicles with a vision to leadership,” Antonio Rodríguez Barberán, Head of Military Aircraft sales at Airbus Defence and Space, told Defense-Aerospace.com. “We are planning to be there, even if it takes some years.”
This is a major shift in company policy, as Airbus Group decided in 2011 to freeze its UAV activities after having invested over 500 million euros in several programs without having convinced its domestic customers that they were worth supporting. Corporate strategy, at the time, was to sit out until European governments decided which programs, and which companies, they would support.
This approach was not very successful, however, as Airbus was frozen out of two major market segments: Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE), where France preferred buying Reaper unmanned aircraft from the United States, with Germany and the Netherlands to follow shortly, and the High Altitude Lone Endurance (HALE) segment, where its EuroHawk program was abruptly cancelled by the Germen government because of cost and regulatory failings. The company was left with only smaller UAVs, a segment where competition is rife and margins small.
Airbus has now changed tack because “it’s time for a proper aircraft manufacturer to get involved, to certify UAVs to civilian standards – and I mean FAR 23 and FAR 25 – so they can be used in unsegregated airspace,” Rodriguez said. At present, UAVs can only be used in segregated airspace, under military air regulations, and so are severely limited in their operational usefulness.
While it has no immediate plans to resume large-scale investments in the UAV sector, Airbus DS does not see financing as a major obstacle. “We know there is a market, and if there is a market there is money,” Rodriguez said. He adds that for Airbus this is a decade-long project, which will eventually bring it a leading role: “Airbus is not here to be a subcontractor,” he says, making clear that the company is not aiming for a subordinate role in ongoing European UAV programs.
While waiting for the MALE market to mature, and for the dust to settle in the combat UAV (UCAV) segment, Airbus is finalizing development of its own tactical UAV, Atlante, which is significantly smaller than the MALE and HALE segments it previously pursued.
Weighing about 550 kg, Atlante has been developed in Spain, and from the outset the goal has been to fly in segregated civilian airspace, i.e. over populated areas, and it is intended to be certified for that operational environment. “The key word here is ‘certification’,” Rodriguez says, adding that, of course, “it has to offer value for money.”
Atlante first flew in February 2013,
Light Transport Aircraft Sector Gliding Along
While its UAV strategy matures, Airbus DS continues to improve its transport aircraft product line. It recently agreed with Indonesian partner IPT Nurtanio, also known as Indonesian Aerospace, to develop a modernized version of the C-212 light twin turboprop transport, and it also is refining the performance of the C-295, its very successful medium twin. Most of the effort is on refining the airframe design, for example by adding wingtip extensions, and on increasing engine power ratings, which together add 1,000 ft. to the aircraft’s ceiling in One Engine Inoperative (OEI) conditions.
The C295’s Pratt & Whitney engines are already at their power limit, so they have no more growth potential, so these refinements, together with a major upgrade of the aircraft’s avionics, will suffice to keep them competitive for years to come, says Rodriguez. The avionics upgrade will make it easier for the aircraft to operate in a civil environment.
A new design may well be necessary in 10 or 15 years, he adds, but for now it is still very premature.
The current line-up is quite profitable for the company, and currently accounts for average sales of about 20 aircraft per year, worth about 700-800 million euros including 100-150 million euros for related services.
Over the past 10 years, Airbus has sold 157 of the 306 light/medium turboprops sold world-wide, and so has a market share of over 50%, and this should increase as additional orders will be announced this year, one of them “by Easter.”
Compared to the Alenia C-27J Spartan, its direct competitor, the C-295 is simple, offers substantially lower fuel costs and “can be maintained with a hammer and a screwdriver,” Rodriguez says. Specifically, he says that maintenance costs are 35% lower, fuel consumption is 50% lower and, in terms of life-cycle costs, “it can save one million euros per plane, per year.”