Video: Airbus launches loyal wingman combat drone out of a carrier
Next-generation fighter jets will go into combat with semi-autonomous wingman drones designed to act as force multipliers. Here's one in development: Airbus has just dropped its Remote Carrier demonstrator out of a cargo plane, for a mid-air launch.
This test forms part of Europe's Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program, which will team sixth-generation fighter jets up with swarms of highly automated but remote-piloted uncrewed aircraft to create co-ordinated chaos in the skies. These stealth drones will be kitted up with mission-specific payloads and armaments, for air-to-air, air-to-ground, recon, intelligence and electronic warfare scenarios.
Much smaller and cheaper than fighter jets, they're viewed as expendable assets, so they won't have the same long-range flight capabilities as, for example, Australia's Ghost Bat loyal wingman drones. So a key part of the FCAS plan is to get these Remote Carrier drones into the theater of battle via large military transports like the A400M Atlas. One Atlas will be able to drop as many as 50 small Remote Carriers close to their destination – or 12 larger "heavy" Remote Carriers.
And here we see the launch procedure in full for the first time. The demonstrator drone being tested is not the final Remote Carrier design; it's actually a modified Airbus Do-DT25 aerial target drone. But the launch procedure is the same: the drone is ejected from the cargo bay of the A400M, under remote control by a pilot on board the plane. Once clear of the transport plane, its jet engines are powered up and started.
At this point, the aerial team hands over control of the powered-up UAV to a ground-based remote pilot, who takes it off on a separate mission before landing it at an airstrip. You can see the operation in the video below.
Meanwhile, the US Air Force is working on its own ways of delivering lethal force using large cargo planes. Its Rapid Dragon system, described as a "bomb bay in a box," is a pallet full of precision munitions that gets dropped out of the cargo bay of unmodified C-17 or C-130 Hercules transports on a parachute.
As it floats downward, it launches whatever nasties it's carrying, which fire downward and away from the chute before establishing control and heading off on whatever autonomous or remote-piloted mission they're slated for.
The USAF has already demonstrated the system in a live fire exercise. Last month, it used the Rapid Dragon system to launch a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile in Norway. Video of this live fire event is available at the Air Force website, but the system is better explained in the render video below.