By Eric Biass
Injecting a little life in an otherwise slightly uneventful exhibition, Thales unveiled its new Spy Ranger reconnaissance minidrone. Yet another drone one could be tempted to say. Well not quite any drone if one is to believe Thales, given the fact that the French company kept all technical data very close to its chest. Compared with other aircraft of similar size – we’re looking at a 15-kilo bird with a wingspan of about 3.8 metres – the Spy Ranger is designed to offer unprecedented image detail and quality (a high-definition angular view that is typically 2.5 wider than its rivals) from the also new in-house developed treble-sensor stabilised chin-mounted ball. Imagery is not only mechanically stabilised trough the performance of the gimbal, but also electronically. The high-definition imagery is processed on board for immediate transmission through a high-capacity c-band datalink, although that imagery is also stored on board for post landing processing. The system is able to transmit both infrared and video imagery simultaneously. The gimbal also carries a laser designator, but its use is really more intended as a pointer for friendly troops on the ground than as a weapon illuminator. As said above, Thales was very stingy in terms of material, but the gimballed sensor is comparable in size to the Israeli light drone Controp units.
Thales has simplified deployability by making the Spy Ranger readily compatible with the Spy C command and control software currently in use by the French Army (and originally developed in co-operation with its special forces units). Other features that facilitate deployment and use of the Spy Ranger include the carbon fibre airframe design (courtesy of Aviation Design, by the way) which breaks up into elements that are small enough to be back-packed and reassembled, as shown in this Thales video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZGyva_2pIk
The Spy Ranger is good for three-hour missions at ranges of 30 kilometres, which is something owed to its Bren-Tronics batteries (the challenge being to obtain dense high-performance, but also highly stable and bloat-free units). The elliptical wing is designed to offer good engine-off gliding capabilities to increase stealthy operation, but oddly enough very short landing capability. This, explained Thales, is done by coming in with a very high angle of approach followed by a strong landing flare and then applying some form of aerodynamic spoiler effect (on may suspect the large inner wing ailerons to play that role). This landing method – traditional as opposed to parachute landing – was preferred for its high precision. Some para-landing drones have more than once been found to drift a few yards over a line deemed safe (of mines, for instance). Take-off is from a relatively light catapult, and as can be seen on the video, the gimballed turret automatically retracts into the airframe before landing. The elliptical wing is worthy of a small reminder here as it was the solution retained by Reginald Mitchell when he supervised the design of the famous Spitfire fighter aircraft, as it enabled one to obtain a very thin wing, which in turn reduced drag.
The Spy Ranger is in its final stages of development and qualification and is scheduled to be ready for production sometime in 2017.