PARIS: Changing battlefield environments are pushing the radar market away from traditional large systems and towards more expeditionary designs and artificial intelligence, executives from Thales believe — a shift driving where the French aerospace and defense electronics giant invests its R&D funding for the future.
To that end, the company has unveiled a new radar system, the Ground Observer 20 Multi-Mission (GO20 MM). The technology was shown for the first time during an early October visit to the company’s headquarters. (Breaking Defense, like other outlets, accepted travel accommodations from Thales for the trip.)
The company’s ambition is to design smarter radar solutions to address the needs of its customers, said Eric Marceau, director of strategy of surface radars activities.
“Our objective is to focus on what we can implement in our current solutions in order to deal with the evolution led by new types of threats for the next five years,” Marceau said. “We want to get the performance we want in a difficult environment, and for that, we have deeply invested in new technologies over the years and are now in a position to embed algorithms based on artificial intelligence to cover a larger spectrum of threats on a lower altitude.”
One of the main challenges the company is working on is the ability to detect slow targets inside an active environment filled with things like trees or windmills that creates clutter for a system. “The objective here is to discriminate between the different targets as they are becoming smaller and smaller,” Marceau added, with main threats being advanced stealth fighters, jammers, and ballistic missiles.
“In short, we need to detect smaller targets and spend much more time on it, something extremely important because when done, you can better detect, recognize and classify your targets,” he explained.
Serge Adrian, Thales’ vice president of surface radars, said that there are more than 1,000 Thales surface radar units in service, with over 45 countries equipped with land and naval defense radars. Figures by the company show that sales have reached up to $700 million, with 80% of equipment exported.
“We are very focused on innovation and we spend a lot of money on R&D, either from our money in self-investment or from the money given to us from our customers to develop new things,” he said, adding that the company spend around $150 million in pure R&D every year.
New Radar System
The first salvo of Thales future line of products is the GO20 MM, single mode radar for continuous 360° 3D detection, tracking and automatic classification of the full threat spectrum. Reporters got their first glimpse of this new design during the visit.
“This radar provides continuous coverage, not only on the ground, but also in the airspace in 3D for the first time in the family,” explained Arndt Ulrich, product line manager. “It can also detect, track and classify targets, particularly UAVs — a capability the company plans to lean on in marketing the system.
“We can’t really say it will replace another radar because it is a brand new one, but adding the counter-UAV capability is the added value here,” Arndt said, “because the counter-UAV market is the new market in which our customers have different expectations, especially ones related to the low level airspace coverage.”
The radar is compact, has a modular configuration and is easily transportable and deployable. “In five minutes, two soldiers can set it up and quickly redeploy for a new mission, whether on a mast or for off-board operations,” he explained.
Thales also unveiled new processing capabilities allowing to use artificial intelligence inside their radars.
“The CPURACK new processing building block will better classify the threats and make threat assessment even more robust,” said Josephine Carvois Faucaud, product manager C-UAU and GO20 MM. “It also allows us to use highly complex and modern algorithms for the best UAV detection through its scalable and future-proof architecture.”
The fact that the radars are all digitalized means that Thales can easily upgrade those by adding new software. “This means we can improve our detection for UAV’s without changing the hardware of our radars, so our customers will benefit from a customizable system that will be able to tackle all kinds of threats,” Faucaud added.
The company is convinced enough in the GO20 MM that it has begun production in limited quantities. “The system is fully industrialized and we aim to produce several tens per year,” Arndt added.
Thales’ average annual production of tall Ground Master radars is 10 to 15 units, and the plan is to have over 140 Ground Master radars in 20 countries by next year. These include the Ground Mater 200, Ground Master 400, and Ground Master 200MM/A, the latter of which Breaking Defense saw in operation.
“We build the radars before even knowing who the customers will be because this allows us to deliver our units faster when needed. All we have to do is integrate the software and hardware upon the customer’s request and we are good to go,” Faucaud said.
Outside of radars, the company showed off its SpyRanger 330 UAS through a static display at the company’s headquarters and a live demo at their training site. Now operational with the French forces under a contract of 70 units, the system is also contracted to another unidentified customer, according to Pascal Secretin, product line manager for imagers and sensors.
When asked about their expansion plans, Secretin said the company aims to sell 30-50 units per year. “We are leaders in this area and we still aim to be. With new kind of payloads and algorithms, we will keep competing in the market and carry on with the development of our line.”
In total, the SpyRanger needs 12 minutes to be assembled and launched, explained Marc Bour, head of UAV flight tests. It is also fitted with a “high rate, secured and resilient to jamming data link system that has an anti-reply solution preventing the enemy from taking control of the UAV.”
While the system can fly at a maximum range of 30km, the live demonstration took place over a few hundred meters for a couple a minutes because of location restrictions. Thales also showed off two of its software packages for drone operations, the ScaleFlyt Remote ID and ScaleFlyt Geocaging on board of civilian drones. These allow identification and secure long-range drone operations.