STUTTGART, Germany — France has tested the VSR700 vertical-takeoff-and-landing unmanned aerial system demonstrator for the first time, marking a key milestone in the development of the nation’s next-generation maritime drone.

Aircraft developer Airbus and France’s military procurement office, Direction Générale de l’Armement, or DGA, jointly conducted the test this month, Airbus said in a May 15 press release.

The VSR700 UAS serves as a demonstrator for the French Navy’s “SDAM” future maritime drone program, the acronym standing for the French “Système de Drone Aérien pour la Marine.” Once operational, the SDAMs are expected to be deployed aboard France’s FREMM multi-mission frigates.

One key capability for the new system is vertical takeoff and landing, as well as autonomous takeoff and landing. Airbus said Monday that the aircraft performed 80 fully autonomous takeoffs and landings from a civil vessel outfitted with a helicopter deck, off France’s West Coast of Brittany.

The VSR700 prototype opened its flight envelope in winds above 40 knots, accumulated eight hours of testing in 14 flights, and made successful landings in several different sea states, said Nicolas Delmas, head of the VSR700 program at Airbus Helicopters in a press release.

The SDAM program aims to develop an vertical-takeoff-and-landing UAS capable of flying for eight hours, carry multiple payloads, and reach speeds of 185 kilometers/hour (115 mph). The company’s DeckFinder system is what enables autonomous launch and recovery of unmanned aerial systems, with Airbus claiming an accuracy of 10 to 20 centimeters (4 to 8 inches) during challenging operations in harsh environmental conditions, independently of GNSS/GPS and regardless of degraded visual conditions.

Prior to the May flight test campaign, Airbus and the DGA in 2022 tested the autonomous takeoff and landing capabilities aboard an optionally piloted vehicle, based on a modified Guimbal Cabri G2, but this latest test was the first time the VSR700 demonstrator was used, the company said. The VSR700 made its maiden flight in 2019.

Airbus and Naval Group were jointly awarded the SDAM risk reduction contract in 2017. Naval Group is developing the mission system for the UAS. The light military tactical vehicle is meant to be deployable aboard both frigates and destroyers, in support of intelligence, surveillance, targeting, and reconnaissance missions, along with anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, search-and-rescue and maritime security.

According to the proposed 2024-2030 military programming law currently being debated by France’s Congress, the Ministry of Defense wants three SDAM aircraft delivered by the end of 2023, eight by the end of 2030, and at least 15 delivered by around 2035.

The DGA procured a second VSR700 demonstrator in 2022. Airbus expects this second aircraft to perform its maiden flight during the second half of 2023, ahead of flight testing aboard a FREMM ship.

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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