3 December 2012
This drone may have an awkward name. But several European governments think the nEUROn is their ticket to a future of flying killer robots.
The video above shows the first flight of the nEUROn, a drone with a 41-foot wingspan and an empty weight of five tons, which on Saturday launched from France’s Istres air base. The takeoff of the stealthy, batwing-shaped drone, jointly developed by six European countries, was nearly a decade in the making, and tests will continue in France, Sweden and Italy for years to come.
In fact, the nEURON won’t actually join any European air forces. Much like the U.S. Navy’s stealthy X-47B — which, as David Cenciotti of The Aviationist notes, the drone kinda resembles — it’s just a demonstrator aircraft, meant to show that European companies can successfully develop an attack-sized, stealthy unmanned plane. Concept proven, the follow-on aircraft will both evade radar and release air-to-ground missiles, the Euros hope, thereby putting them at the front of the pack in emerging drone technology. The U.S. has the only acknowledged stealth drones in existence, the X-47B and the mysterious RQ-170 Sentinel, although defense giant BAE Systems is developing an allegedly stealthy drone called the Taranis and photos on the internet indicate China, at the least, is working on stealthy drones called the Crossbow and the Wind Blade. (Iran also claims to be reverse-engineering an RQ-170 that it captured last year.)
The Europeans have another hope for the drone. Not only should the
project show that European defense firms are capable of technological
achievements like the nEUROn, its backers want to show they can pull it
off as austerity measures on the continent ravage defense budgets.
Dassault Aviation, the French defense firm that’s taking the lead on the
nEUROn, boasts of its “innovative
process in terms of management and organisation of a European cooperative
programme.” The nEUROn program may help convince cash-strapped
continental defense ministries that they’ve got a technologically advanced
way to cut back on their manned air forces. That is, if the nEUROn can
keep its electronic synapses firing.