Arizona start-up challenges major primes for King Air 350 market

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An Arizona-based start-up company plans to challenge US defence prime contractors in the rapidly growing market for airborne surveillance platforms.

Aerial Surveillance Systems (ASSI) plans to demonstrate the SkyEye 350, a used Beechcraft King Air 350 that has been modified with two sensor payloads and processing stations, at a US Army exercise in mid-November, says Mike Long, the company's founder and chief executive.

The demonstration is critical for the company to be recognised by potential customers, Long says. In the near-term, it plans to upgrade used King Airs with FLIR Systems' Brite Star II electro-optical/infrared camera and a synthetic aperture radar. It also could shift to converting new-build King Airs after Hawker Beechcraft clears a 2.5-year order backlog, Long says.

ASSI's aircraft design, which was first flown on 19 October, could compete for a new US Army requirement for an aircraft in the King Air 350-class called the medium-altitude reconnaissance surveillance system (MARSS). The requirement is part of a five-layer strategy for aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Army officials want to select a company that can deliver two to four aircraft within a year for validation purposes, Long says. That order could be followed by follow-on contracts for up to 40 King Air 350s, he adds.

Long acknowledges that his start-up firm faces a tough sales campaign against defence industry primes. L-3 Communications, for example, is converting King Air 350s into MC-12 Libertys for the US Air Force. Sierra Nevada is supplying up to 30 King Air 350s for the US Customs and Border Patrol under a contract announced in early October.

Even Lockheed Martin has expressed interest in MARRS-class surveillance aircraft. The company has said that systems designed for its Gulfstream III-based airborne multi-intelligence laboratory could be repackaged for the King Air 350.

Facing that level of competition, ASSI's founder is realistic about his firm's prospects.

"Being honest, that is a project that is not going to go to a company like ours that has one airplane and the ability to produce a lot more," Long says. "Although, you never know."

The ASSI business strategy is focused on becoming a reliable supplier for a niche market for airborne surveillance platforms. The company is in talks with the US Missile Defense Agency, for example, to lease aircraft to monitor anti-ballistic missile and Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser tests, Long says.

It is also pursuing the international market. In late October, Long was scheduled to travel to brief the Panamanian government and the mayor of Juarez, Mexico, about the SkyEye 350's capabilities.

"If we sell five to six airplanes next year we'll be happy," he says.

Long founded ASSI after participating as an aircraft salesman in the USAF's search for its first eight MC-12 Libertys, which were purchased from the used market.

The USAF designed its own requirements for the aircraft, and forced L-3's contractors to make it work. According to Long, it would have been cheaper and faster for the private sector to design a complete system, and to sell that package to the USAF at a fixed price.