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System of Systems: Aircrafts, Drones, and Operators Become a Single Body

On the opening day of the Salon du Bourget (Paris Air Show), Airbus and Dassault revealed the first model of the New Generation Fighter, a jointly-developed military aircraft designed to the specifications set forth by the French and German governments in April 2018.

The captivating design of the New Generation Fighter has already captured the attention of the media and the public, but this reveal is only the tip of an iceberg.

That ‘iceberg’ is the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), in which aircrafts, unmanned systems, and operators will seamlessly be combined in a single, integrated network – a perfect example of system of systems (SoS).

The Next Generation Fighter model (left) and the remote carrier (right) (photo: Dassault Aviation)

A system is defined as a collection of components organized to accomplish a specific function or set of functions (IEEE). Systems of systems, and the analysis thereof, is an evolving domain.

An intuitive definition (Checkland, 1999) states that a SoS involves two or more systems that are separately defined but operate together to perform a common goal. Moreover, two properties of a SoS were identified by Maier in 1998:

  • Operational Independence of the Components: If the system-of-systems is disassembled, its component systems must be able to usefully operate independently.
  • Managerial Independence of the Components: The component systems […] maintain a continuing operational existence independent of the system-of-systems. (Maier, 1998)

One of the best known SoS in military aeronautics is the ISTAR system (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance), the objective of which is to gather and share information to create the most accurate model of a mission scenario and improve the decision-making process.

Several systems compose the ISTAR architecture: manned aircrafts, UAV, satellites, ground telecommunications centers, and soldiers’ portable devices. These systems have operational independence, since they can fulfill their role outside of the ISTAR architecture; for instance, an aircraft can fly and destroy a target on its own. These systems also have managerial independence, since there is no single command authority: an aircraft pilot and a ground soldier think with their own minds and do not have direct control over the decisions of the other.

L'architecture ISTAR est un SoS dont le but est de recueillir et de partager l'information. The ISTAR architecture is a SoS, the objective of which is to capture and share information.

An aircraft serves as an examples of a (singular) system, not a SoS: the systems of which compose the aircraft (propulsion, electronics, etc.) could not fulfill their roles independently, and they respond to a single decision maker, the pilot.

As mentioned before, the FCAS is a system of systems composed both of both manned and unmanned vehicles intended penetrate highly restricted airspace (Airbus, 2019).

The primary systems composing the FCAS include:

  • The Next Generation Fighter, manned, which acts as a managing platform with high penetration capabilities,
  • Remote carriers, to be controlled by the fighter and acting as sensors and weapon systems,
  • Other allied aircrafts and satellites, with which interoperability must be secured via the Air Combat Cloud - a telecommunications and data management system.

Tests have already been performed on this architecture: in 2018, Airbus tested the pairing between manned and unmanned vehicles in a flight campaign, and later that year, performed the same test using LTE Air Node technology, the basis on which the military secure communications network is built.

Airbus FCAS architecture (Airbus 2019)

The same SoS logic can be applied to another aircraft presented at this year’s Salon du Bourget, Skyeyetech by Azur Drones. Skyeyetech is a UAV meant for surveillance of industrial sites, such as nuclear plants, oil platforms, and ports. To perform its function, the drone has to be integrated in a security system already in place composed by guards, automatic detection means (such as cameras and sensors) and dissipative means (alarms, gates, etc.).

Skeyetech deployment (Credit : Azur Drones 2019)

Starting from the examples mentioned above, some general considerations about the advantages and issues to address in the development and operations of SoS can be highlighted.


Interoperability is the capability of systems to work together to achieve the operational capabilities demanded in a SoS architecture (Kok Wah et al. 2008). Interoperability is difficult to achieve because the systems are often developed by different companies without a clear understanding of their use in a SoS architecture. The specifications of the individual systems do not come from shared principles, so these systems must be modified in order to be integrated into an SoS.

Manned and unmanned integration

In a large part of SoS, manned and unmanned systems with different levels of autonomy cooperate, and the authority of one system over the other has to be carefully defined. In air traffic management, for instance, air traffic controllers are responsible for the separation among aircrafts, but, as soon as a conflict is detected by the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System), the pilot must follow the TCAS resolution, even if this resolution conflicts with that of a “human” air traffic controller. In this case, the sensors of the onboard system are assumed to be more precise than the radar tracking, but what would happen if the human controller was right?


A SoS has an extended, decentralized intelligence, which is more difficult to protect from external intrusions than a centralized system. Moreover, in aeronautics, systems must minimize weight and energy management: in the case of a small UAV, the addition of an electronic board would strongly degrade the UAV’s performance and endurance due to the board’s weight and battery consumption, making the UAV more susceptible to hackers.

IAC Partners can assist in the development of SoS solutions via two main approaches:

  • Challenging the specifications to meet complex SoS requirements: The systems composing a SoS have to be developed according to a complex specification list, in order to guarantee system interoperability and the added value of each system. Analyzing, challenging, and completing the specifications is key for the success of the SoS program.
  • Enhancing the collaboration among the stakeholders in the project: Given IAC Partner’s expertise across several industries and our international presence, IAC Partners can improve the integration of multiple companies and agencies working on a single SoS project. Through our implementation methodologies and workshops, the complexity of the SoS program is structured and every single issue is addressed and taken under control.
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