Catalyst – 100% European development without any US licenses. Ecologically more effective thanks to 20% lower consumption and 10% higher power. This means three more hours of time in the air, which can be decisive in various defense actions and even save lives.
Within a few weeks, Airbus Defense and Space will have to decide on the choice of the engine that will equip the first European drone resulting from the collaboration between Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. This contract signed between Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation (OCCAR) and Airbus is a result of the new challenges facing Europe’s defense system.
Europe is now facing one of the biggest, if not the biggest, security crises in its modern history. In this time of high international uncertainty, many defense services are looking to upgrade their unmanned operational capabilities on a large scale. If these new types of drones are to provide serious strategic advantages, they need a new generation of powerful engines that deliver high speed at the lowest workable operating costs and the highest possible reliability and efficiency.
We were able to talk with the of CEO GE Aviation Turboprop, Milan Šlapák and find out what the Eurodrone project aims to do, about the company’s successes in developing new Catalyst engines, and how this new generation, the game-changing engine could provide the ideal solution for this project.
Interview with Milan Šlapák, CEO GE Aviation Turboprop
OCCAR, which represents four Eurodrone program’s member states – Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, and Airbus Defense and Space signed the global Eurodrone contract on February 24, 2022. The industrial sector has been waiting for it for quite some time, what does this milestone mean for you?
This is an extremely important milestone indeed. It ultimately means that the program can move into the next phase, which is selecting and contracting suppliers of individual systems. By signing the global contract with OCCAR [Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation – Ed.], Airbus is basically set to proceed further. And we’re really wishing we’ll be by their side.
Over the past couple of months, various media outlets have pointed to our Catalyst engine as a frontrunner to power the Eurodrone. And that is exactly what’s in it for us.
Eurodrone program was launched in 2016, doesn’t it feel kind of late getting into a supplier selection process only six years after?
I think we all agree we wished it was moving faster, at the same time, it is fair to recognize the massive complexity of the program that is being coordinated across four EU member states. Budget allocations of this size and several national stakes simply add a political part to the overall equation that includes defense needs, technical and economic requirements, etc.
Two of the ultimate objectives of Eurodrone are strategic defense autonomy since the EU nowadays mostly relies on non-EU manufacturers and a strengthening technology position of the European defense industry. Such objectives imply that time is of the essence. The unfortunate crisis unfolding in Ukraine [Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 – Ed.] and neighboring countries clearly demonstrates that the EU can act in a united and timely fashion.
Do you see the time to get to the supplier selection played in favor or against the Catalyst engine?
Well, that has yet to be seen. The fact is that we launched the Catalyst program at the end of 2015 and we have been ultimately focusing on its execution since then as we had a real market demand and a launch customer, Textron Aviation [The Beechcraft Denali made his first flight last November – Ed.].
We already built 17 Catalyst test engines and collected more than 3,000 hours of operations, including over 150 hours of flight time. The Catalyst is actually flying on two different test planes: a single-engine Beechcraft Denali prototype and a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air 350 flying testbed. It is reportedly the most mature engine program offered for Eurodrone. This is not a paper engine. We have performance data that details the advantages of Catalyst.
All that hard work over the last few years paid off and we’re reaching a very mature state of the program. All practice tests are completed, and we’re progressing steadily towards certification.
How much does Europe actually need drones versus classic jet fighters?
Let’s remind ourselves what drones, specifically MALE drones, are used for. They provide essential capability in the area of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. Also, drones are not deployed only in pure military operations, but they represent a key resource during natural disasters and crisis management or as prevention of international or regional conflicts.
Drones can play a much bigger role at the time of migration crisis and illegal human trafficking, for instances, by collecting valuable intelligence in real-time during border patrols. In general, many EU member states still use rather manned special mission vehicles for border patrolling missions because there are not many alternatives offering lower acquisition costs and cost of operations. That is a great opportunity for the future.
Going back to the Catalyst turboprop engine, you mentioned the performance is proven but what that performance can actually do for the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market segment?
Technology ultimately defines the performance and this performance must translate into an improvement in customer value. If there is no value proposition improvement, modern technology would be only a wasted opportunity.
In terms of performance, Catalyst offers up to a 20% reduction in fuel consumption and 10% higher power at cruise. One way to look at it is pure economics. That is, how much money I save on fuel (and how much I also reduce the CO2 emissions) over the life span of the drone system. Another way to look at it is what competitive advantage I could gain. Considering a typical UAV mission, the Catalyst engine could prolong the time in the air by three hours or increase a payload by 800lbs! That is substantial.
The UAV market focuses on turboprop engines because of their fuel efficiency and overall economics. Well, our clean-sheet Catalyst engine was designed as a turboprop engine with the unique and specific needs of this market segment in mind. As an example, UAVs, especially the ones operating in medium and high altitudes, require substantial power at altitudes. The Catalyst engine had fantastic results in an altitude test chamber, demonstrating its power capability at medium and high altitudes.
What technology is behind that then?
We took the proven technology from commercial aviation legacy engines and scaled it for the 900-1600 shp [shaft horsepower – Ed.] turboprop market segment. What makes us extremely proud and motivated in how the Catalyst program fits into our very own purpose statement: “We invent the future of flight.” The Catalyst program and engine itself represent countless “first.”
Its compression ratio of 16:1, by far the highest in this segment, combined with cooled turbine blades enables us to operate hotter inside the engine. On top of it, there is a variable geometry on the compressor stator blades, fully controlled by digital FADEC [full authority digital engine control – Éd.]. FADEC also integrates the propeller control, therefore, the engine is being continuously optimized. The wide use of additive technology helps us reduce the weight of the engine too.
There were also discussions about whether GE being an American company actually qualifies for Eurodrone … can you comment?
Catalyst engine is totally a European project and a European program. Since the very beginning, we launched the program at the core of Europe leveraging the strengths, skills, and expertise of more than 400 professionals based in multiple EU countries, predominantly Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany. We have strong firewalls and rules of engagement to ensure Catalyst is 100% designed, developed, and built-in in the EU. Thanks to that, we have a product that is ITAR free with no license required from the USA.
I was personally involved in the early stage of the program launch and I temporarily relocated to Torino, Italy, back in 2016 as we were growing the program and engineering teams there. Later on, I supported the program by developing the European ecosystem of suppliers and external partners. Those were exciting times that laid down strong foundations for our truly European operations.
Avio Aero, a GE Aviation business headquartered in Italy, is leading the Eurodrone Campaign. Avio Aero is one of the key European players in the field of civil and military aviation programs with over 110 years of history, an outstanding track record, reputation, and credibility.
In general, how does GE Aviation Turboprop plan to be involved in the Eurodrone project?
GE Aviation Turboprop is organized under Avio Aero, which competes for Eurodrone as a first-tier potential engine supplier. GE Aviation Turboprop would be a second-tier supplier delivering through Avio Aero in the event that the Catalyst becomes the selected powerplant supplier for the Eurodrone program. Avio Aero has more intensive expertise and reputation in the defense sector of the aviation industry, so it makes perfect sense.
We proactively secured all necessary security clearances for GE Aviation Turboprop locally at Prague’s headquarters and implemented a robust system to handle eventually military information coming in from Eurodrone. Since the Czech Republic is not a member state of the Eurodrone consortium, we worked closely with the Czech Government, especially with the Ministry of Defense and National Bureau of Security to put it place a Security Assurance Certificate and other measures proving the interest of the EU is protected. We have all of that in place. I was amazed by the fantastic and unconditional support from Czech authorities who understood the benefits and prestige of the Czech industry’s involvement.
Will then a majority of the supply chain be localized in the Czech Republic?
Compared to other product lines of GE Aviation Turboprop, the Catalyst engine contains a lot more complex and state-of-the-art technology that is simply not available in one country only. However, we nicely diversified the supply chain portfolio through Europe and we selected the most suitable partners considering the technology involved, robust quality assurance, IP security, etc. That perfectly fits into our strategy of Catalyst being a European product and ITAR free.
The other advantage we see now in the light of the recent COVID pandemic, a localized European supply chain significantly reduces logistical risks. At the same time, it greatly meets the spirit of Eurodrone and EDIDP programs: building a strong and sovereign European defense industry.
Do you see any other defense projects, involving GE. Aviation Turboprop and Avio Aero on the horizon?
I believe there will be more European-driven defense programs considering the evolving security situation, and also believe that GE as a technology leader will have many options to offer. However, for now, we’re focused on executing the Catalyst program..
Interviewed by: Stanislav Dvornytskyi
Edited by: Katerina Urbanova
Photo: ACE (Jan Pirgl), GE Aviation