AAI is seeking new markets for its Aerosonde Mk 4.7 unmanned air system, following in-house engine upgrades the company says bring the reliability of the aircraft’s powerplant up to manned aircraft standards.
David Phillips, vice-president of AAI's small- and medium-endurance UAS, says the company has completed about 11,000 Aerosonde flight hours in Afghanistan with an improved 4hp engine (3kW), following overhauls designed to address reliability problems.
Phillips says the changes bring new standards of reliability to the small UAV market, and will help AAI – a division of Textron – to market Aerosonde to new commercial and military customers worldwide.
“Reliability is an enabler that lets us showcase our multimission capability,” says Phillips. “We have gotten our system to a very good reliability point. Now we can highlight its multimission capabilities.”
Last October, Textron chief executive Scott Donnelly revealed during an earnings call that the company had experienced “unacceptable quality” from the previous maker of Aerosonde’s engines, Australian company Orbital. A few days later, AAI announced overhauls would be conducted by another Textron subsidiary, Lycoming, which has experience manufacturing engines that meet US Federal Aviation Administration standards for manned aircraft.
AAI operates Aerosonde UAS for the US Department of Defense on a fee-for-service basis.
Phillips does not specify what problems were addressed or what changes were made to the engine, but says the aircraft's new Lycoming EL-005 engine sets a new standard among small UAS.
“[Lycoming] brought all of that manned aircraft quality and expertise into the unmanned realm,” says Phillips, adding that small UAS have typically been powered by engines originally designed for other purposes, such as for use on snowmobiles.
What is good for AAI is also good for the US Navy, says Col James Rector, small tactical unmanned air systems programme office manager for the USN and US Marine Corps.
"This engine, along with Lycoming's quality processes for new production and remanufacture, have yielded significantly increased system reliability since the EL-005's introduction in service,” says Rector.
Phillips adds that improved reliability makes Aerosonde more attractive to new customers.
In addition to pursuing potential foreign military sales with countries like the Netherlands and Spain, AAI is also seeking sales to oil and gas companies in southwest Asia. These companies can use overhead surveillance to monitor pipelines and protect against oil theft, Phillips says.
AAI says it is also seeking sales to mining companies for security purposes, and that the Aerosonde can be used to monitor offshore economic zones.