Dassault Aviation entered the world of drones with the AVE-D Petit Duc experimental aircraft, the first stealthy uninhabited aircraft to fly in Europe.

Origins and context

Drones, uninhabited aircraft

An analysis of the conflicts of the 20th century shows that in the first decade of the 21st century, the theatre of operations will see the use of battlefield networks involving manned combat aircraft in the offensive role in association with Uninhabited Air Vehicles (UAVs) or drones. The latter, under the control of a battlefield surveillance system, will perform reconnaissance, jamming/decoy and communication relay missions with the aim of ensuring persistence and real-time information transmission. In the medium term, Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) will perform ground attack missions and, in the longer term, air-to-air missions, in both cases offering discretion and complementarity with manned aircraft.

The advantage of this concept is to avoid the risk of crew casualties in wartime, while delivering precision weapons at all times under all weather conditions In the presence of high-level threats, using new operational options. In peacetime, advantages include reduced maintenance and training costs, reduction of the environmental impact of training flights and the capacity to evaluate systems and train crews.

In the late 1990s, Dassault Aviation embarked on an innovative, autonomous and self-funded demonstration process to develop its design capabilities in the UAV field. This process was based on the company’s know-how in the field of business aviation and combat systems. The aim was to allow the company to consolidate its military offering while opening the door to national and international cooperation.

Petit Duc experimental aircraft

Dassault Aviation made its entry into the UAV arena with the AVE Petit Duc experimental validation aircraft, designed and built with a view to exploring rapid prototyping with controlled cost goals. The AVE-D, for “discretion”, made its first flight on 18 July 2000 at Dreux-Senonches airfield. It was the first stealthy uninhabited aircraft to fly in Europe. Its primary objective was to validate design calculations in terms of stealth and to study the confrontation between modern weapon systems and reduced-signature threats. In particular, it demonstrated the possibility of combining rustic technologies (to reduce costs) with advanced technologies (to achieve an exceptional degree of stealth).

The technical design teams were headed by Pierre Georges. Flight activities were performed by the flight test division, led by Francis Laurens and by Eric Rantet of the Aviation Design company, a specialist in scale models and air targets. The partnership with Aviation Design also covered maintenance and repair, assisted by the Argenteuil factory for certain parts.
AVE-D was subsequently joined by AVE-C (for “control”) with a new wing design and tail fins, which flew on 7 November 2002 at Dreux-Senonches. It made a successful demonstration of tail-less flight at the same airfield on 11 June 2003. The flying qualities of the tail-less AVE-C showed the capacity of Dassault Aviation to master, at reduced cost, the key design areas of future UAVs: discretion and total control of aircraft instability via the flight control system.