S-Plane selected by Airbus for innovative wing demonstrator project


Airbus has chosen S-Plane Automation to supply its X-KIT optionally piloted vehicle conversion kit for its eXtra Performance Wing demonstrator project, which will see X-KIT installed on a remotely controlled Cessna business jet.

S-Plane said its X-KIT will be used to safely and reliably ensure the remote control of a Cessna Citation VII that will fly breakthrough wing technologies being developed by Airbus UpNext, a wholly owned Airbus subsidiary set up to fast-track the development of future technologies through the rapid assembly of demonstrators, and evaluating, validating and maturing these technologies.

The eXtra Performance Wing project was launched in September 2021 and completed wind tunnel testing in early April. Airbus said the project takes inspiration from nature to improve wing aerodynamics and performance that is intended to be compatible with any future aircraft configuration and propulsion system to reduce CO₂ emissions, contributing greatly to Airbus’ decarbonisation strategy.

Initially introduced at a smaller scale through another Airbus project, AlbatrossONE, which tested semi-aeroelastic hinged wings that unlocked during flight when experiencing wind gusts or turbulence, the eXtra Performance Wing will also examine onboard technologies, like gust sensors, pop-up spoilers and multifunctional trailing edges, to enable the active control of the wing.

“The scaled demonstrator will integrate and fly breakthrough wing technologies using a remote-controlled Cessna Citation VII business jet platform in representative flight conditions,” explained Oliver Family, Head of eXtra Performance Wing UK.

At the heart of the X-KIT system installed on the Citation VII is an appliance known as the X-CUBE. According to Dr Iain Peddle, S-Plane’s Chief Technical Officer: “The X-CUBE interfaces with all the necessary aircraft sub-systems, such as fuel, engine, electrical power, communication and hydraulic systems to manage and control them.”

The X-KIT also includes a selection of satellite and line-of-sight radio frequency datalinks. This communication equipment reliably links the aircraft to S-Plane’s ground station equipment, such as remote piloting stations and payload operator stations running S-Plane’s highly configurable ParagonC2 and ParagonISR software. An Integration Testing Station (ITS) facilitates fast and high-fidelity testing of the integrated system for formal acceptance testing of integrated systems.

“S-Plane is highly experienced at the conversion of fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft into UAS [unmanned aerial system] and OPS [optionally piloted system], having done so for more than 13 years”, said Dr Thomas Jones, S-Plane’s Chief Executive Officer. “This experience allows us to support safe, fast and affordable conversions, even for unconventional aircraft”.

“S-Plane not only supplies the X-KIT, but supports clients with system design and engineering, configuration, integration, flight testing and certification activities. With this approach our clients optimally benefit from our experience and can be sure that our equipment is properly configured within their larger system,” Jones said.

One of the aircraft S-Plane has supplied its X-KIT for is the Tecnam P2006T light twin, which has been used by Spanish electronics company Indra on its Targus optionally piloted vehicle, designed for surveillance missions.

The P2006T-based Targus began flight testing in 2020, with groundbreaking experimental flights in non-segregated airspace with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that weighs 1.25 tons and has an 11 metre wingspan.

The Targus optionally piloted vehicle is based on the MRI version of the Tecnam P2006T aircraft, and is fitted with a Seaspray 5000E radar, a high resolution electro-optical/infrared payload (FLIR UltraForce 275-HD or Wescam MX-10) and maritime AIS (Automatic Identification System). Targus can fly in civil airspace like any other certified aircraft. Once deployed in the area of operations, it can be configured as an unmanned aircraft.

S-Plane integrated the X-KIT system onto the Targus together with Indra, Gaerum and Airborne Technologies.

The X-KIT system operates the aircraft controls identically to when they are operated by a pilot. When a pilot is on board, he may override the controls or switch over to manual piloting as required.

S-Plane said the optionally piloted vehicle has many benefits, such as being able to execute missions that demand human judgement and control such as flight in civil airspace, flight over congested areas, flying at low level and transporting passengers, when in manned mode. When the optionally piloted vehicle is configured as an unmanned aerial vehicle, it can perform missions which require extreme endurance or are too dangerous for manned aircraft.

The X-KIT design allows an aircraft to retain its certification status for manned flight, enabling its continued use in airspace where manned aircraft operations take place.

The X-KIT system can be installed on most fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft to convert these into manned, unmanned and optionally piloted ISR aircraft systems. It has been installed on the Fama Kiss 209 helicopter and CADG Helix ISR aircraft (Stemme ES-15).

Johannesburg-based Ultimate Unmanned led the development of the Viper 1000C unmanned aerial vehicle, based on the Stemme S15 motor glider. This was launched in 2016 and evolved into the CADG Helix optionally piloted vehicle, capable of carrying hundreds of kilograms of sensors, including long-distance day and night cameras. The base model Helix-1 system can be flown with a single pilot while the mission equipment is controlled from a ground station, while the Helix-2 can take the pilot out of the cockpit entirely. The Helix-1 has successfully been trialled on anti-poaching missions in the Kruger National Park, leading to the apprehension of half a dozen poachers over a six-week period. It has also been deployed to Mozambique.