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Building strategic autonomy

Over the past few years, the growing pace of technological change has added significant complexity to the battlefield. Threats have become faster, more agile and increasingly diverse. With the progressive resurgence of great power competition, the breadth and variety of these threats meet with saturating fighting tactics that could lead to high intensity conflicts. 

From tactical advantage…
In such complex environments, time is, more than ever, of the essence. In order to gain and maintain tactical advantage, frontline troops must be able to rely on critical, real-time information.

Mini and mini tactical UAS, such as those of Thales’ Spy’Ranger family, have become game changers in this new paradigm. Highly agile and capable of relaying critical information at ranges of up to 30km (Spy’Ranger 330) and 50km (Spy’Ranger 550), they can carry out key missions of tactical Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) while keeping frontline troops and aircrew safe. 

…to strategic autonomy
In the context of great power competition, however, gaining and retaining tactical advantage is only part of the challenge. In a significantly globalised world, the past decades had seen defence programmes built on cross-country partnerships and spanning, at times, different continents. 

As near-peer competition increases in the coming years, this paradigm will shift as well. One of the key challenges will also be the ability to develop a strong, self-reliant national - and potentially European - defence eco-system. “Such eco-system will need to be ready to also make the next generation of mini-UAS, which will act as the ‘first entry’ capability in contested and harsh environments,” says Pascal Sécretin, Product Line Director Imagers and Sensors in Thales. When developing the Spy’Ranger family, such strategic autonomy was one of Thales’ key objectives. 

Flying eyes
Because Spy’Rangers act as the ‘flying eyes’ for frontline troops and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC), one of the main requirements was that they be fitted with a state-of-the-art sensors capable of streaming high-quality information. 

Merio, a French company specialised in gyrostabilised payload, was selected to co-develop the Spy’Ball specified and designed by Thales. “The Spy’Ball, manufactured by Thales, offers high-definition videos and still pictures in three bands for different conditions: visible (day), near-infrared (end-of-day), and long infrared (day and night). The video processing takes advantage of complex algorithms developed and embedded by Thales in the Rafale fighter pods” says Gilles Labit, Head of military UAV Department in Thales.

Light resilience 
To carry the Spy’Ball deep into the battlefield or areas of strategic interest, Thales selected its partner Aviation Design, a French company specialised in the study, design and production of UAVs, to design and produce the Spy’Rangers’ airframes.

We worked closely with Thales to develop airframes that could meet aerodynamic criteria as well as operational needs such as resilience to harsh environments, agility and modularity,” says Eric Rantet, Aviation Design CEO. The choice of carbon material for the airframes ensures systems are light yet robust, capable to operate from -15° to +60° and up to 4000m altitude. Assembly/disassembly of the drone can be done in less than 12 minutes without tool by 2 operators. 

Micro links
Finally, collected data only brings significant tactical advantages if it is communicated in real-time, providing precious minutes to anticipate enemy’s movements and adapt tactics if needed. 

Leveraging years of experience across Thales, the Spy’Ranger family of mini and mini-tactical UASs has been fitted with Thales’ µTMA. Designed to be small, light and efficient so as to maintain optimal Size, Weight and Power (SWaP), the micro TMA ensures cyphered and resilient high datarate transmission of imagery intelligence collected by the Spy’Ball. “The micro TMA also opens a new era of collaboration between manned and unmanned systems, called MUM-T, for example teaming Spy’Ranger drone with combat helicopters” says Sébastien Vaillant, Product Line Manager of µTMA.

Back to the future
To retain their tactical advantage and strategic autonomy in tomorrow’s conflicts, the next generation of light contact UAS for air-land combat will have to implement innovative building blocks to face the challenges inherent to contested environments. To do so, Thales and the Spy’Ranger ecosystem are already working on the future” concluded Pascal Sécretin. 


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