Airbus' autonomous drone helicopter aces flight in conditions where pilots don't fly

The rotor drone could be a crucial force multiplier needed at sea.
Ameya Paleja
VSR700 - the multi-mission naval UAS from Airbus
VSR700 - the multi-mission naval UAS from Airbus


Airbus has successfully completed sea tests of its autonomous drone helicopter, the VSR700, in wind speeds exceeding 40 knots. These are conditions where even experienced pilots decide not to fly a rotary aircraft, according to a company release.

Uncrewed helicopters have a funny appearance, but their role in the military is severe and can even be deadly. From anti-submarine operations to rescue ones, the rotor-powered drones can take up multiple roles alongside reconnaissance, intelligence, and surveillance (RIS) missions.

With its VSR700, the Airbus prototype is pushing the limits of what the drone can do, and it has recently achieved some fabulous results.

What can the VSR700 do?

The recent tests were conducted by Airbus Helicopters in collaboration with Marignane and the French Armament General Directorate (DGA). Before this, the report said that only the Autonomous Takeoff and Landing (ATOL) system designed for the VSR700 was tested on a modified small helicopter, Guimbal Cabri G2.

The recently concluded tests marked the first time the drone was put together as a complete system and flown in an operational configuration at sea. The drone is powered by a 15 bhp (11.2 kW) Thielert Centurion 2.0 diesel engine and has a payload capacity of 220 lb (100 kg) with a maximum takeoff weight being 1,543 lb (700 kg).

With a 23-ft (7-m) long rotor blade, the drone can cruise at speeds of 120 knots (~140 miles or 220 km per hour) and a service ceiling of 20,000 ft (6,000 m). More importantly, it has an endurance of 10 hours, almost twice that of a standard helicopter.

The flight's ATOL system was tested across 80 operations during the test. The onboard DeckFinder system from Airbus can help the drone take off and land off a frigate's flight deck with an accuracy of four inches (10 cm) without needing a GPS or similar navigational system. The company claims the system's accuracy is equally good, even under zero visibility.

In recent tests, the VSR700 also operated in wind speeds of over 40 knots, considered "strong gale" conditions where one can find 23-32 ft (7-10 m) high waves at sea. Even experienced pilots refuse to fly in these conditions, but the VSR700 prototype flew for eight hours of testing in 14 flights and successfully landed in different sea states too.

Airbus is working on a second prototype of the VSR700, which will be tested off a French Navy multipurpose frigate later this year.

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