Cast your mind back a couple of years to the feverish discussion and fretting about which variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter the MoD would select to satisfy the Joint Combat Aircraft requirement, and the more recent changing of variant, there was some hope that the UK would be able to develop an electromagnetic launch system.
The company developing the solution was called Force Engineering, then Converteam and now GE Power Conversion. Converteam and GE have a long track record with the Royal Navy and the latest news is the award of a contract to study DC power distribution in Royal Navy ships for example.
The smaller Electro Magnetic Kinetic Induction Technology (EMKIT) launch system had been in test and development for some years with hundreds of successful launches under its belt. In 2009 the MoD awarded Converteam a £650k follow on contract to continue development and up-scaling work, EMKIT to EMCAT. EMKIT actually developed out of the initial EMCAT work, if that make any sense!
The presentation below, from 2010, described progress to date including over 2,500 successful launches from EMKIT and the boundaries between a low and medium voltage technology depending on the weight of the aircraft being launched.
The significant difference between EMKIT/EMCAT was in the use of more advanced linear induction motors that allowed a much lower cost and complexity open loop control system to be utilised.
Timing was ultimately against it though as at one stage the US General Atomics EMALS and Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) system were seen as safer bets and the MoD placed a DSCA request for EMAL/AAG following the SDSR decision to change lanes.
You can see the MoD’s position, they have to get QE and JCA into service at the basic level and costly development of a solution that will not be needed in the near future would be hugely wasteful.
However, the lower capacity, mature and seemingly low low risk EMKIT technology still has promise and GE Power Conversion have continued with development of the Medium Voltage Advanced Linear Induction Machine (ALIM) technology.
In February last year GE Power Conversion released news confirming progress on the medium voltage system;
“The tests on the MV ALIM are the culmination of more than a decade of substantial investment and development in EMCAT,” he said. “Stall testing satisfied all major test objectives of this new MV LIM. Thousands of launches have been proven previously on the smaller EMKIT variant, which allows aircraft weighing up to 11 tons at speeds of up to 50 meters per second to be launched.
Smaller aircraft can be accelerated to speeds of up to 120 meters per second
Read more here
During all the trials the short EMKIT track (15m) was repeatably able to accelerate 500kg test loads to speeds in excess of 50m/s with growth for double that launch weight. The Elbit Hermes 450, on which Watchkeeper is based, has a maximum take off weight of 550kg
EMKIT+ would use a longer launch track (94m) to enable launch weights of up to 10,000kg’s to be accommodated.
For reference, Predator B or Reaper has a maximum launch weight of 4,763kg.
Does all this mean anything for the MoD today, probably not, it needs to get the F35 and CVF into service with as little technology risk as possible but it does open up a few interesting future options, and no, I am not talking about switching back to the F35C, but utilising our shiny new aircraft carrier(s) for sea based long range high persistence ISR.
PS, it also seems some of this technology is being thought of for all electric submarines, especially for torpedo launch.