General Atomics attracts first customer for Avenger UAV, claims Lockheed

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General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has attracted a customer for its stealthy and secretive Avenger unmanned air system, but as a high-altitude surveillance platform, a prospective subsystem supplier says.

A customer has demanded that General Atomics install "Global Hawk-like" payloads on the Avenger, says Don Bolling, a Lockheed Martin senior business development manager.

The company had previously agreed to install Lockheed's electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) on the Avenger, but that effort is on hold due to the undisclosed customer's interest in the high-altitude mission, Bolling says.

Bolling declined to identify the interested customer. General Atomics has sold the Avenger's two predecessors - the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper - to a wide range of buyers, including US and foreign militaries, intelligence groups and civilian government agencies.

General Atomics declines to comment about Bolling's statements about the Avenger, which is designed to fly to up to 60,000ft (18,300m).

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© General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

Lockheed's statements raise the Avenger's profile as a high-altitude surveillance platform. The design was widely considered a next-generation replacement for the Predator/Reaper family, but it may also serve as an alternative to the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.

The decision to put the EOTS integration effort on hold is a setback to Lockheed's attempts to adapt the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's targeting forward-looking infrared camera and infrared search and track (IRST) sensor to other stealthy aircraft.

Lockheed also has discussed integrating the EOTS as a passive imaging sensor on the Northrop B-2 bomber, but those discussions have also not yielded progress, Bolling says. He attributes the reluctance on EOTS to the B-2 programme's familiarity with synthetic aperture radar systems.

Lockheed continues to believe that the F-35's targeting system can be adapted for future stealthy aircraft, such as the MQ-X requirement for a Predator/Reaper replacement, and a need for a next-generation bomber.

Meanwhile, Lockheed has delivered the first production-configuration EOTS to the F-35 flight-test programme. The system is scheduled to be installed on the co-operative avionics testbed aircraft in April and enter flight testing in June, Bolling says.

The system's IRST sensor will initially provide a 60° azimuth scan capability. A planned processor upgrade will increase the scan window to 120°, Bolling says.