PARIS — France has ordered 105 Spy'Rangers from electronics company Thales, with the first miniature drones to be delivered by 2019, the defense procurement office announced on Thursday.
"The Direction Générale de l'Armement ordered Dec. 21, 2016, from Thales the production of the mini drone reconnaissance system," the DGA said in a statement. "The first systems will be delivered between now and 2019 and will benefit from 10 years of maintenance." A system comprises three UAVs.
There was an initial acquisition of 35 UAV systems, with a further 35 under option, bringing the total to 70 systems, or 210 units, worth a total of €104.3 million (US $108.8 million), a source close to the deal said.
The DGA declined to comment on the value of the deal.
"Starting in 2018, Thales will provide French forces up to 210 mini reconnaissance UAVs," the electronics company said in a statement. Each UAV system includes the ground segment and technical support.
Winning a French contract is a big boost to export prospects, with Thales pitching the Spy'Ranger in four to six foreign military tenders, Pascal Sécretin, Thales manager of the mini-UAV product line, told journalists. The drone will be on display at upcoming trade shows in India and the United Arab Emirates.
The mini UAV is essentially "made in France," with the batteries the sole imported equipment, he said.
A French product is critical as employment is seen as a key political requirement in arms acquisition. A previous pick of the Patroller, a tactical UAV from Safran Electronics & Defense, over the competing British Watchkeeper from Thales has been seen as reflecting a preference for a national weapon system over imports.
The Spy'Ranger aircraft has been designed to a high, robust level, with a retractable sensor pod and an airframe built from reinforced carbon-carbon, which operates silently with an electric engine, said Eric Rantet, chairman and chief executive of Aviation Design, the aircraft builder who has partnered with Thales.
Thales designed the mini UAV based on lessons learned and also what the French Army might need in the next 10 years, said Jean-Pascal Arrou-Vignod, Thales vice president in charge of electro-optical business.
The mini-drone reconnaissance system will equip the services and succeeds the Drac system, which entered service with the Army in 2008, the DGA said. Thales developed Spy'Ranger with two small and medium French companies, with the airframe from Aviation Design and electro-optical pod from Merion.
A selection of Thales displaces Airbus Defence & Space, which had pitched the SkyGhost from its subsidiary Survey Copter. In 2005, Airbus DS won the Drac contract worth €30 million.
The electro-optical sensor has a visual sensitivity previously only available on a higher segment, the DGA said. The mini UAV has an operating range of 30 kilometers, delivers a high-definition, day-and-night capability, with a wingspan of 3.8 meters, weighing 14.5 kilograms, and can stay aloft for two and a half hours. Thales will supply the secure, real-time video datalink, based on technology from Elsa, a DGA-funded research project.