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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Editor’s Note: UAVs Unabated

Bill Carey

What a mood swing. Nigh on three months ago, we soldiered through the Paris Air Show, calling out the few bright spots at an otherwise glum centennial event. Last month’s Unmanned Systems North America 2009, put on by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in Washington, D.C., was palpably cheerier, and for good reason — unmanned aircraft are a growth market.

Yes, there is insecurity about declining defense spending. But UAVs coming in all shapes and sizes offer the perfect antidote in being more affordable and versatile than manned aircraft. Facing non-traditional threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon needs intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) today, not air superiority as exemplified by the F-22. The U.S. Air Force this year for the first time will train more UAV operators than fighter and bomber pilots, and other nations are embracing UAVs for ISR, border patrol, drug interdiction and the sundry other missions these birds fly. That may be unpleasant for manned aviation, but it’s good news for the suppliers of miniature navigation systems, antennas, data links, data recorders, cameras and infrared sensors found in UAV bodies and bubble turrets. "Overall, the mission demands are way up," said Gene Fraser, vice president with Northrop Grumman’s Strike and Surveillance Systems Division.

Even the August sun over southern Maryland failed to diminish the positive tenor at the 5th Biennial Unmanned Systems Demonstration that preceded AUVSI’s symposium and exhibition. Held at Patuxent River Naval Air Station’s Webster Field, the event featured 15 unmanned aircraft and ground vehicles, beginning with Aurora Flight Sciences’ GoldenEye 80 vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, dubbed a "flying flower pot" by the event’s announcer.

Among highlights was the public debut of L-3 Communication’s optionally piloted Mobius, configured with retractable L-3 Wescam MX-15 electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) turret, L-3 Geneva flightTEK autonomous flight-control system and L-3 Systems West mini-TCDL tactical common data link. The debut flight carried a standby pilot, who was seen on the jumbotron eating an apple as Mobius descended for a 215-knot flyby.

On one of my search-and-interview forays outside the misting tent on this, the hottest day of the summer to date, I spoke with Dave Sliwa, director of demonstration systems with Insitu, of Bingen, Wash. Sliwa said Insitu, manufacturer of the ScanEagle and more recently, Integrator UAVs, was going gangbusters well before Boeing acquired the company in September 2008. A year ago, Insitu employed about 450 people; it now has 650 employees and "we could easily be 1,000 by the end of 2010," he said.

"There’s definitely explosive growth throughout the market, and I think that’s because of the success that platforms like the ScanEagle have had overseas, in-theater or operating in commercial operations, doing different tasks," Sliwa said.

ScanEagle, which played a role in rescuing the captain of the Maersk Alabama from Somali pirates last April, recently surpassed 200,000 operational flight hours, including 2,500 hours with new heavy-fuel engine. More than 1,000 ScanEagles have been delivered. Its thrice-heavier sister, the Integrator, is competing for the U.S. Navy’s Small Tactical UAS (STUAS) Tier II requirement, reportedly against the Raytheon KillerBee, AAI Aerosonde Mk 4.7 and General Dynamics/Elbit Hermes 90. Integrator is guided by the Rockwell Collins Athena 111m navigation and flight-control system, an 8-ounce unit that Maureen Stevens of Rockwell Collins presented to me in the palm of her hand.

At one end of Webster Field, BAE Systems displayed a replica of its Mantis armed reconnaissance UAV, first revealed as a mock-up at the Farnborough Air Show in 2008. The program, thus far a technology demonstration, is funded by the U.K. Ministry of Defence. A flight-test aircraft was undergoing final integration testing "pending a first flight in the near future," said Peter Findlay, BAE business development manager, Autonomous Systems & Future Capability.

Mantis will be equipped with the L-3 Wescam MX-20 EO/IR turret. Arrayed next to the replica were a Paveway IV laser-guided bomb and Brimstone anti-armor weapon.

Findlay said Mantis is "very important" to BAE Systems. "As well as sustaining the technology capability for this sort of system within the U.K., it’s the next generation of system beyond the manned aircraft," he said. "This is where a lot of the development activity is going."

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