Located on the outskirts of Milan, the Leonardo Nerviano plant is a centre of excellence for a wide variety of activities, ranging from space to radar and electro-optical systems. When we talk about electro-optical systems, in this case, we are referring to airborne Infra-Red Search and Track systems (IRSTs). With long-standing experience in delivering leading-edge products, which are increasingly in demand on the market thanks to their innate characteristics as passive sensors, Leonardo has become a world leader in the sector. In fact, IRSTs can detect targets within a certain range, without producing emissions, rendering the platform undetectable. In short, it is an eye that sees without being seen. This also applies to targets with low radar reflectivity, an anti-stealth feature that has made IRSTs increasingly popular. Today, IRST is now indispensable for the modern fighter and it will become even more so in sixth-generation air combat systems.
Leonardo and Nerviano’s experience with IRSTs began with the Eurofighter Typhoon, PIRATE project. Developed by the EuroFirst consortium, in which Leonardo is a majority shareholder, it can detect and track an aerial target, providing the onboard computer with its position (i.e., azimuth and elevation), speed, acceleration, approach trajectory, etcetera. Over the years, PIRATE has been constantly updated to improve its performance and is now at the heart of the European fighter’s Long-Term Evolution.
The experience gained with PIRATE led to the development of SkyWard, which is now the company’s flagship product in the industry. SkyWard is a ‘proprietary’ system, entirely manufactured at Nerviano, with support from Leonardo UK’s Southampton facility. With outstanding scanning and terrain imaging performance, it can detect stealth aircraft at significant distances. Highly compact (the ‘head’ weighs under 25 kg, while the processor weighs less than 15 kg), the system is available in various configurations and is already used on Swedish and Brazilian Air Force Gripen E/F fighters. SkyWard was also procured for South Korea’s fifth generation KF-21 fighter and a client in the Far East for use on a remotely piloted aircraft. In fact, in the field of sixth-generation air combat systems, drones are required to act as ‘companions’ for the mother fighter, complementing its functions by performing pure air-to-air and wingman capabilities (loyal wingman or adjunct).
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