S-Plane unveils xKIT optionally piloted vehicle conversion kit


Cape Town-based S-Plane is launching its xKIT automation solution at Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) 2016, which converts an existing manned aircraft into an Optionally Piloted Vehicle (OPV).

Between 14 and 18 September at Air Force Base Waterkloof the company will be showcasing a demonstration system, which consists of a production-model Fama helicopter supplied by Fama Helicopters Africa which has been equipped with S-Plane xKIT avionics and ground station equipment (ParagonC2 and the other necessary items to control aircraft such as communication links, weather station, priority routing of data and high accuracy GPS for automatic take-off and landing). During the demonstration during AAD the aircraft will ‘fly’ a simulated autonomous mission, while the ground station operator has access to all aircraft parameters and payloads.

S-Plane said the operator has authority to manage the mission or take manual remote control as required. For the demonstration the aircraft will be coupled to an S-Plane Hardware-In-the-Loop Simulator which provides high fidelity inputs to the aircraft, essentially making its “experience” identical to actual flight – the aircraft will remain stationary on the ground during AAD.

The Hardware-in-the-Loop simulator represents the earth, weather, aircraft physics and sensor inputs to the flight control system, to the extent that the latter experiences this as real flight. S-Plane is able to get countless hours of ‘flight’ time to test the systems before taking to the sky.

The xKIT operates the aircraft controls identically to when it is operated by a pilot. When a pilot is on-board he may override the controls or switch over to manual piloting as required. The system will be test flown in the weeks that follow AAD, with the aircraft ready for that phase. The aircraft has flown many hours before as a manned aircraft.

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 OPV is configured as a UAV, it can perform missions which require extreme endurance or are too dangerous for manned aircraft. These include critical infrastructure protection and surveillance, border and maritime patrol, cargo delivery, firefighting and hazardous materials containment.
“The OPV can dramatically reduce the different classes of vehicles an organisation has to keep in operation to perform a variety of tasks. This brings about substantial savings in setting up infrastructure, other capital expenditure and training of maintenance and operational personnel. The ability to operate in manned airspace also greatly reduces the out-of-service period during planned maintenance, as the aircraft can be flown to the maintenance depot without requiring disassembly and shipment,” S-Plane said in a statement. It added that another benefit was using proven, existing airframes with large payloads.

The xKIT uses building blocks from the S-Plane xSERIES of subsystems and can accommodate a wide variety of different aircraft. A single switch allows the pilot or operator to toggle the OPV between manned and unmanned piloting modes.

The xKIT design allows an aircraft to retain its certification status for manned flight, enabling its continued use in airspace where manned aircraft operations take place. It operates in tight integration with other S-Plane subsystems such as ParagonC2, a ground station for UAV command and control and S-Plane’s HILS (Hardware-In-the-Loop Simulator) for testing, qualification, maintenance and training.

S-Plane was established in 2008 and specialises in UAV flight control units, mission management subsystems and avionics with a focus on reliable subsystems. S-Plane started with flight control systems but now offers things like payload management units, power management systems etc. All software is developed in-house and all hardware is manufactured in South Africa. Product and development scope spans both the civil and military UAV markets, and also extends to autonomous land, sea-surface and underwater vehicles and their subsystems.

At AAD 2014 S-Plane unveiled its Paragon command and control system, able to control multiple UAVs simultaneously. The system is essentially a 3D world in which UAVs, waypoints and other metadata are all objects that can be manipulated and controlled graphically by the operator. UAV sensor data can be viewed and projected onto the map, and as more data is gathered, more detail is added to the map.

In addition to manufacturing control systems and software, S-Plane has built two UAVs: the Swift and Nightingale. The Swift has a wingspan of 7.5 metres and is powered by a UEL AR-741 rotary engine, giving an endurance of 12 hours and ceiling of 18 000 feet. It can carry two payloads, including an electro-optical/infrared turret and radar etc. The Nightingale small UAV was built in conjunction with the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), which wanted to airdrop medical samples.