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An innovative new vertical take-off-and landing (VTOL) unmanned aerial vehicle called the Jackal has successfully conducted firing trials with Thales Lightweight Multirole Missiles (LMMs).

The trial, which actually took place in October 2022 but was only publicly revealed on 17 April 2023, was sponsored by the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) Rapid Capabilities Office, while the Jackal was designed and developed by UK-based Flyby Technology, with Turkish partners FlyBVLOS Technology and Maxwell Innovations providing design engineering and prototyping expertise and Thales providing the LMMs.

According to Thales, within a demanding six-week window this team was “able to build two operational Jackal aircraft and successfully fire two LMMs in an impressive demonstration of agile teamwork”.

Flyby Technology’s Jackal VTOL UAV firing a Thales Lightweight Multirole Missile during trials in October 2022. (Photo: Flyby Technology)

Electrically powered, the Jackal can take off, hover and land vertically using four sets of twin contra-rotating propellers, but it also has a 5 m wingspan and four wing-mounted ducted-fan motors for forward flight. The UAV has a fuselage that is about 2.3 m long, into which are mounted two launch tubes for LMMs. These Thales-built missiles are 1.3 m long, weigh just 13 kg and can be launched from a variety of tactical platforms on land, sea or in the air, with a first-stage motor allowing the missile to emerge from its launch tube without recoil and travel to a safe distance before the second-stage ignites.

LMMs travel at Mach 1.5, have an operational range of at least 6 km and use laser-beam-riding guidance to accurately strike a range of conventional and asymmetric threats, such as static installations, armoured vehicles, fast in-shore attack craft, helicopters and UAVs.

With such a potent offensive capability mounted on a very compact VTOL platform, the Jackal UAV thus promises to be truly transformational, given that it could operate from hidden locations in woods or built-up areas.

With the LMM firing trials having taken place in October, ESD asked the Flyby Technology CEO, Jon Parker, where the Jackal programme is now headed.

“We’re now being asked to plan for production at scale,” he replied on 18 April, although he could not talk specifically about contractual agreements with the RAF or UK Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The Jackal UAV can take off, hover and land vertically using four sets of twin contra-rotating propellers, but it also has a 5 m wingspan and four wing-mounted ducted-fan motors for forward flight. (Photo: Flyby Technology)

Asked when the Jackal capability could be deployed, Parker said, “It could be ready in six months, but a more realistic figure is 12 months, although a form of capability could be ready in weeks if needed. The problem is not the technology; it’s the means of scaling production.”

Parker explained that the model under which the Jackal capability is being developed is an example of a situation where the UK MoD moving away from large prime contractors, which have the means to produce at scale but are not very agile, towards a model where the primes instead support the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in their ability to rapidly innovate. “Some primes have really embraced that,” he said.

“We work in six-week surges and then we rest; we don’t do the long, turgid ‘five years for development’ thing,” said Parker, “but SMEs can’t scale to manufacturing in one stride, so at some point you have to join forces with a prime.”

Noting how some large defence companies in the past have tended to ‘gobble up’ the SMEs working with them, Parker warned that “You should only dance with those that don’t step on your toes.”

Parker was not at liberty to disclose where the Jackal capability was headed, but he did note that it was “to plug a capability gap”; it could reasonably be surmised that this gap is in Ukraine. The Thales press release on Jackal’s LMM firing trials, at any rate, noted that Flyby Technology was asked to brief the RCO on Jackal “following the invasion of Ukraine”.

“This capability allows forces to engage enemy lines of communication and material at range in areas where you wouldn’t traditionally risk higher value assets,” said Parker. “Jackal is also highly adaptable, multi-role and modular, so in the morning it could be doing ISR and in the afternoon it could be killing tanks.”

The Jackal is also “a fraction of the price of platforms with a similar capability”, Parker added. “It’s a cheap, attritable but devastatingly capable platform.”

The Jackal concept of operations would see it procured in the hundreds, Parker explained, although he noted that the VTOL UAVs would still be flown by pilots.

“Even if they weren’t armed, we would still choose to fly the aircraft with pilots,” he said, given the intensive nature of operating UAVs. Full use would be made of autonomous take-off and landing capabilities, while two pilots per UAV would take control to execute the actual mission.

Peter Felstead