STUTTGART, Germany – The French military has qualified a new miniature unmanned aerial system dubbed Aliaca, and received three initial systems for use aboard the Navy’s patrol vessels and surveillance frigates.

The fixed-wing UAS are built by Survey Copter, an Airbus subsidiary. The company signed a contract in 2020 worth €19.7 million (U.S. $19.73 million) with the French sea service for 11 systems – totaling 22 aircraft – in its maritime variant, dubbed SMDM for “Systèmes de Mini Drones aériens embarqués de la Marine.” The contract includes training and maintenance services.

The French military procurement office Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) certified the SMDM package on July 28, and the three first systems were subsequently delivered, the ministry announced Sept. 1. The certification followed multiple at-sea trials, run by the DGA, that allowed the navy and industry partners to test the system in multiple operational scenarios, the ministry said in a press release.

Each SMDM system comprises two Aliaca drones, weighing 16 kg (35 pounds) each, that are catapult-launched and can operate autonomously for three hours in a 50 kilometer (27 mile) range, per Survey Copter. Its electro optical/infrared (EO/IR) payload makes it suitable for missions at any time of day, as well as during severe weather conditions.

“These capabilities will allow the SMDM to investigate far-away zones, to identify structures at greater distances than radar ranges, and to characterize the threat in a real-time video feed,” the French Ministry of Defense said in the release. The drones will be capable of identifying unknown vessels, discreetly detecting vessels of interest, or help in the search for shipwrecked individuals.

The SMDM systems will be stationed aboard the French Navy’s high sea patrol vessels, overseas patrol vessels, and surveillance frigates, the Navy said.

Survey Copter has developed light tactical UAS since 1996, and became a subsidiary of Airbus in 2011.

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.

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