A new versatile drone system capable of multiple types of combat missions over land, sea and air has completed a highly successful first trial firing of a Thales Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) to bring the potential of unmanned air combat a step closer to reality.
The JACKAL drone capability has been designed and developed by experts from UK-based Flyby Technology, with Turkish partners FlyBVLOS Technology and Maxwell Innovations providing design engineering and prototyping expertise, to fill a recently discovered gap in modern combat operations.
As a Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) platform, JACKAL is designed to satisfy a number of roles, including Battlefield Air Interdiction, Close Air Support, engaging helicopters in flight and killing tanks, to denying the use of runways and roads.
The trial – sponsored by the Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) of the Royal Air Force – involved teams from Flyby and the technology giant Thales which also manufactures the LMM.
Within a demanding six-week window, they were able to build two operational JACKAL aircraft and successfully fire two LMMs in an impressive demonstration of agile teamwork.
As a plug-and-play system, new equipment and technologies can be incorporated into JACKAL between missions as well as during continued development. The company says this novel streamlined procurement process ensures that future aircraft are not obsolete before they go into service and will remain relevant for longer. It also gives a pathway to future regulatory compliance and airworthiness standards.
Flyby Technology CEO Jon Parker is a former RAF and Royal Navy fighter pilot and he and his team have brought many years of operational experience to bear in the design of the capability.
The company says many nations cannot afford attack helicopters or access fast jets that are modern enough to survive today’s battlefield. JACKAL can give them the same effect with little risk at a fraction of the price. Because the aircraft was born from the ideas of Harrier pilots, the aircraft takes off and lands vertically, another advantage over traditional fighter jets as there is no need for vulnerable runways. It also means that JACKAL can operate from hidden locations such as woods and urban built-up areas. A unique selling point for JACKAL.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, Flyby Technology was asked to brief the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) on their new drone system.
The Flyby team also contacted Thales in Belfast – where the LMM is designed and manufactured – to explore the possibility of firing it from JACKAL in a trial.
The Thales team accepted the opportunity to work with Flyby to be the first to fire their LMM (also known as Martlet in the Royal Navy) from a drone in flight. Flyby Technology planned and built two operational aircraft from scratch and fired two LMMs in the demanding timescale of six weeks.
Firing a sophisticated missile is not an easy task under the best of conditions and then only with meticulous planning taking many months. JACKAL then being an unproven, experimental aircraft, just added to the complexity of the challenge says the company.
The Belfast team rose to the challenge magnificently and just six weeks after getting the call, the combined teams successfully fired two LMMs proving that JACKAL had arrived as a devastating combat capability able to fire modern battlefield weapons in flight.
Air Commodore Jez Holmes, Head of the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office, said “Given the impressively short time scale it took the team to deliver the initial trial, it’s clear that Flyby could have an exciting future in this sector, and the partnering and support from Thales was outstanding in lowering the barriers to entry for innovative start-ups. I’m looking forward to seeing the ongoing developments in this area.”
Jon Parker, Flyby Technology CEO, said: “War is about winning, and JACKAL is designed by war fighters for that ultimate aim. The days of having a Fighter Pilot in the cockpit are numbered and I realise I will not perhaps be loved for bringing about the end of my own kind. But the future of warfare is changing and JACKAL is part of that future as a true multi-role attack aircraft. We want to make JACKAL a flagship product, creating secure UK jobs and contributing to a new future for the British aerospace and defence industries.”
Philip McBride, Managing Director of Thales in Northern Ireland, said: “One of the unique selling points of LMM is its ability to be integrated onto multiple platforms, including armoured vehicles, helicopters, naval vessels or indeed, shoulder-launchers, each designed to address different threats. It has been a privilege to work with the Flyby team on this time-compressed and ground-breaking trial and has proved that both Thales and Flyby can produce impressive and agile results when focussed on a collective, shared objective.”
The JACKAL team is now developing plans for production, whilst the aircraft is undergoing other enhancements and tactical development.
About Flyby Technology
As a former RAF and RN pilot, Air Warfare Instructor and Senior Weapons Instructor, Jon Parker has also brought to bear his project design, development and management experience gained previously from his role as aviation integration manager for the two new British aircraft carriers.
The original design development, prototyping and testing of JACKAL brought together the formidable warfighting expertise of Flyby together with the rapid prototyping and drone-building expertise of partners FlyBVLOS Technology and Maxwell Innovations. This also meant the team could fly and test their aircraft at their dedicated range in Turkey without the regulatory restrictions placed on the flying of drones weighing more than 25 kilos in UK airspace.
Flyby Technology will continue development in Turkey as well as the UK but is now seeking UK manufacturing partners to build JACKAL at scale. They are also designing weapons perfectly suited to both the JACKAL and its new Attack Drone role.
About Thales in Northern Ireland
With a 60-year heritage in world-class engineering, Thales in Northern Ireland is the leading high technology company in the country, employing more than 700 people in the defence and space sectors.
Thales contributes >£50 million to Northern Ireland’s GDP with Thales Belfast’s staff average pay in the top 10% of all employees in Northern Ireland. Thales Belfast also supports an ecosystem of suppliers and 91% of our local procurement in Northern Ireland is with small to medium enterprises (SMEs).
Thales in Northern Ireland is located across two sites. Through the design and production of high precision, high volume effectors and fire control systems, as well as the integration of weapons onto tactical platforms, Belfast has developed into a centre of excellence for Thales’s air defence and surface attack solutions.
Belfast is also home to Thales’s global Space Electric Propulsion Integration Centre, delivered in 2016 with a £6 million investment. The centre was located in Belfast due to the high precision engineering skills already present on site, which were developed through our defence business alongside Invest Northern Ireland investment. Our site in Belfast delivered the first all-electric propulsion module designed and built in the UK, the Spacebus Neo Xenon Propulsion System (XPS), demonstrating its strength in the UK’s dynamic and growing space sector.
Thales has a strong commitment to investing in Northern Ireland’s future talent. We support research at one of Northern Ireland’s leading universities, Queens University Belfast, on a wide range of topics including cyber security, aerodynamics and advanced networking and communications.
As well as our work with universities, Thales supports STEM outreach in primary and secondary schools in Northern Ireland. Working with Primary Engineers, Thales supports the Primary Engineer & Secondary Engineer Leaders Award for Northern Ireland, giving local school pupils the chance to meet engineers from Thales and design potential solutions to engineering challenges.