Virginia-based Aurora Flight Sciences has announced the sale of a Centaur optionally-piloted vehicle (OPA) to the Swiss air force, marking both the aircraft's first sale and the world's first OPA purchase. The aircraft, a highly modified Diamond DA42, will be used to test technologies for integrating unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) into civil airspace.
Delivery is scheduled in November 2012.
"The first customer is usually the hardest one to get, and so for us it's a big deal," said Aurora CEO John Langford. "The Swiss are an iconic gold standard for the world in everything they do."
The Swiss government released a request for information (RFI) for the project in February, 2011, and downselected in August. Several competitors bid on the project, said Langford.
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"Our objective with the Swiss is to have this aircraft perform beautifully for them, and they'll find other applications," said Langford, hopefully resulting in new orders. Aurora must sell 10-15 aircraft to break even on the project. "We certainly see a path to getting to the sales we need to get past break-even. We're optimistic of sales in the order of a couple of dozen."
The aircraft is designed and built with the academic research community in mind, but the civil world has been relatively slow to adapt UAV technology. In contrast, militaries worldwide have enthusiastically committed to UAVs ranging from very small to very large. The Swiss air force has operated smaller UAVs for decades.
"Our initial application for Centaur when we launched it, it was aimed at the scientific research community," Langford said. The aircraft was designed specifically to fly unmanned over the inhospitable polar ice cap; getting there requires flying through national airspace, where UAVs are not permitted.
The Centaur, which begins life as a regular DA42, is flown to Aurora's Manassas, Virginia facility, where the systems required for remote piloting are installed. Any extra payloads will be installed by the Swiss air force.