Paris Air Show

GA-ASI trolling for export business

 - December 12, 2006, 1:34 PM

“We’re getting bigger–but we’re still manageable,” said Tom Cassidy of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI). The firm best known for the UAV that rewrote the rules of air warfare–the Predator–now employs more than 1,200 people at nine locations in southern California.

At this Paris Air Show, GA-ASI will be seeking more export customers, but its core business is still the U.S. government, which relies on Cassidy’s outfit as a quick-reaction, “can-do” supplier, unencumbered by the overhead and bureaucracy of the large aerospace companies.

The company’s I-Gnat extended-range UAVs that fly 140 hours per week over Iraq are a good example. The U.S. Army badly needed greater surveillance of the terrain surrounding its resupply convoys, to protect them from attack. Predators were active in Iraq, of course, but they were an air force asset controlled and flown by satellite from the U.S. Ten months after receiving a contract, GA-ASI deployed three UAVs, a ground station and 12 of its own people to operate a system in Iraq that was immediately responsive to the Army’s needs.

According to Steve May, international business development manager, GA-ASI unmanned vehicles have flown nearly 4,000 hours since 2001’s September 11 terrorist attacks, and are logging more flight time now than when Operation Iraqi Freedom ended. The basic Rotax-powered Predator has been joined in U.S. Air Force service by the larger, turboprop Predator B, which can fly twice as fast and high (240 knots and 50,000 feet). It uses the same ground control stations and datalinks. There have been many other upgrades to the Predator system in the 11 years since it first flew, including anti-icing provisions, imaging radar, multiple ground station compatibility and, most famously, Hellfire missiles for attacking ground targets that can be designated by the Predator’s own laser.

For the U.S. Navy’s Mariner demonstration last year, GA-ASI combined the fuselage of the Predator B with the larger wing of the Altair, another high-flying UAV designed by the company to perform science missions for NASA. The Mariner flew from land bases in California and Alaska to a radius of 2,000 nm over the Pacific, with control passing to and from warships as required. An underslung pod carried a 360-degree maritime surveillance radar.

However, the Navy has yet to decide its ultimate requirement. The Army is more definite. In a hurry-up contest for an extended-range/multipurpose UAV, GA-ASI and two partners entered the Warrior, a Gnat/Predator hybrid. A flyoff took place in the spring against a Northrop Grumman-led team that proposed the Israel Aircraft Industries Heron, relabeled the Hunter II.

As befits the company with the most operational experience with UAVs, GA-ASI emphasizes the need for thorough training and good support. Crashes of Predator and other UAVs have brought unwelcome publicity, but May noted that, “despite not being double-redundant, the Predator has enjoyed a lower loss rate per flying hour than manned aircraft.”

The Altair/Predator B/Marinair developments have triple-redundant avionics, and GA-ASI has been at the forefront of efforts to integrate UAV operations into civilian-controlled airspace. “We hope to certify the Predator-B [for flight in controlled civil airspace]–when someone has defined what it takes to do that,” said May.

The Gnat was GA-ASI’s first UAV, and its first export success, in Turkey. So the company must have been disappointed to lose that country’s recent contest for an endurance UAV to the Israelis. The only other export customer acknowledged by the company is Italy, which bought the Predator system. But GA-ASI has provided UAVs for a number of demonstration/evaluation programs, notably by Canada and the UK. It is eyeing CoastGuard and military requirements in Australia.

In typical fashion, the company is saying little about the Predator-C, a jet-powered UAV that is expected to fly later this year. But it is the next logical step for GA-ASI, which despite Cassidy’s denials, appears to want to challenge Northrop Grumman by producing a machine that can match or exceed the Global Hawk’s performance, but at a lower cost.