ROME – Leonardo has announced more details of the 757 test bed aircraft it will use in the Tempest program, including a 28 ton payload for equipment and six locations for sensors.

Dubbed Excalibur, the aircraft has been remodeled with a pointed nose to mimic the likely Tempest design by Leonardo’s partner, UK firm 2Excel.

“On-board, scientists and engineers will test futuristic sensors and communications for the Future Combat Air System that the UK and its international partners are developing to fly into service in 2035,” Leonardo said in a statement released during the London DSEI show.

“Excalibur will provide the real-world environment necessary for the latter stages of development of the complex, integrated sensors, non-kinetic effects and communications Leonardo is developing,” it added.

The firm, which partners BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and MBDA on the UK led program, said it expected Excalibur to be used by other international flight test programs, manned and unmanned.

The aircraft, it said, could “be used to complement the development of uncrewed technology, including acting as a control hub for uncrewed platforms undergoing test.”

The aircraft was the product of two years of work by Leonardo and 2Excel on the design, the firm said, adding it hoped it would help “cut by half the cost and time needed to build a combat aircraft.”

Flying at 42,000 ft, the aircraft will cruise at 0.8 Mach and reach 0.86 Mach with a range of 3,900 nautical miles.

Air Commodore Jez Holmes, head of the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, lauded the progress of the flight test aircraft (FTA) program during a panel discussion at the London defense exhibit.

“I think the critical point for me is, in particular, when we look at sensors, it’s important that we test them in a representative environment,” he said. “They often will work perfectly on the testbed, and on the bench and in the labs.” The performance is more challenging when placing them in combat-like, cluttered environs, he added.

“So it’s a great endeavor from my perspective and I’m really pleased to see it moving ahead,” Holmes said.

Valerie Insinna in Washington contributed to this report.

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