What is important is not the aircraft but the information it can provide
Interview with Raul de Santos, Product Manager for Fulmar, Thales in Spain
As the head of the Thales in Spain RPAS programmes, Raúl de Santos has the mission of continuing to drive the development of Fulmar, the one-hundred-per-cent Spanish, remotely piloted aircraft system that in 2016 won its first contract in South-East Asia. This aeronautical engineer is convinced of handling a technology with great future prospects
WHICH REMOTELY PILOTED AIRCRAFT (RPAS) IS THALES IN SPAIN WORKING ON?
Together with Wake Engineering, we are developing Fulmar, a fixed-wing remotely piloted system with 20-kilo maximum take-off weight, putting it in the range of the mini-UAVs –unmanned aerial vehicles—with high levels of performance similar to those of tactical UAVs. With a range of more than eight hours and more than 80 kilometres, it has been devised for carrying gyro-stabilized cameras. In addition, Thales manufactures other platforms, prominent among them the Watchkeeper used by the UK Army: a UAV weighing more than 450 kilograms and with far more advanced features that can be equipped with a double sensor.
WHAT GAVE RISE TO THE FULMAR PROJECT? WHY DID THALES IN SPAIN DECIDE TO EMBARK ON THIS TECHNOLOGY?
The project started in a small company in the Basque Country. Thales in Spain saw its potential and took closer control, taking on Wake Engineering as a technology partner, with a development and manufacturing centre in Getafe.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS PROJECTION FOR FULMAR?
The technology has scope in the civil and military fields. We are aiming our efforts at three potential markets: the first one is to meet the future needs of the Spanish Armed Forces. Secondly, we want to serve the international market; in 2016 we signed the first contract for Asia. The third major area is Latin America due to proximity, culture and business relations.
HOW IS FULMAR DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SIMILAR PLATFORMS AVAILABLE ON THE MARKET?
Essentially in its deployment capacity, which is rapid and simple. It is launched by an elastic catapult and in less than half an hour the system is mounted and ready for operation, from any more or less clear location and in any weather conditions. It is retrieved by an automatically unfurling net system. Thanks to this, we do not depend on any ground-based infrastructure, making a runway unnecessary for take-off or landing. It also provides a long reach and range, with the possibility of equipping it with several types of sensors: gyro-stabilized cameras, nano-SAR, small radars, communications intelligence, electronics intelligence and more.
IS PROGRESS BEING MADE IN SENSOR TECHNOLOGY?
A few years ago no-one could have even considered what mobile telephony would eventually represent. The same is the case here, applied to the world of RPAS. We will increasingly fit more features in these aircraft without increasing their weight, given that sensors are becoming more and more lightweight.
WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE HUMAN TEAM WORKING ON THE FULMAR PROJECT?
We are 30 people –engineers most of us– operating in different areas: design, R&D, flight equipment, etc. It is a very young team, highly trained and with a great deal of experience. We are convinced that this is an activity with a great future. We have the Wake Engineering facilities in Getafe, in a joint development with Thales in Spain. We are also looking to position ourselves as a trailblazing company in the field of remotely piloted aviation. We are working with firms that supply products for the Fulmar, for example the autopilot or the advanced recovery systems, which are automatically deployed and are capable of being embarked on ships. Thanks to their collaboration with Thales, these companies generate opportunities for entering new markets.
ARERPAS REALLY SO SAFE?
Of course. RPAS systems such as Fulmar are prepared for executing a completely automatic operation. From launch to recovery, everything is systemized, with set transit points and heights. This programming and planning can be modified in real time. In the event of loss of communication with the system, the device is capable of returning to an initially programmed point.
WHAT WILL THE INDUSTRY BE LIKE MID-TERM?
We will offer greater variety of applications in current vehicles. The advances will allow us to fly longer distances for longer. We will obtain images with greater precision. What is important is not the aircraft but the information it can provide. That is where the margin for improvement lies.
ALWAYS WITH SOMEONE CONTROLLING ITS OPERATION...
In effect. An expert in the system is needed to verify the action of the RPAS at any given time.
DON'T YOU THINK THAT EUROPE IS FALLING SOMEWHAT BEHIND IN THIS TECHNOLOGY?
In the military domain, it may be that the United States and Israel are developing more advanced systems given their own experience in their use. But in the civil domain we have the opportunity of a comparable launch, since Europe has been developing RPAS applications for longer in this environment. This is why we should demand from the authorities that they drive its legislation forward.