US special forces to test AeroVironment Global Observer

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AeroVironment is negotiating a three-year sole-source deal with the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to demonstrate the tactical utility of its Global Observer hydrogen powered high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned air vehicle.

The award has a potential value of up to $129 million with capability assessment demonstrations expected to commence next year.

SOCOM is managing the new-start joint capability technology demonstration on behalf of the Office of the Secretary of Defence, which gave the green light to the project in the third quarter of its fiscal year 2006.

A pre-solicitation notice released by SOCOM headquarters 12 January says the Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstrations (JCTD) will see Global Observer “demonstrate the tactical utility of a hydrogen powered unmanned aircraft system for long duration (5-7 day) mission at altitudes from 55,000-65,000ft [18,150-21,450m]”.

SOCOM says that “based on our knowledge of the market, AeroVironment is the only contractor with an unmanned air system design that meets the JCTD readiness levels”. Global Observer made its debut flight in May 2005.

Aerovironment is already on contract to SOCOM to carry out risk-reduction work on an advanced full scale hydrogen aircraft powerplant. That sole-source activity, announced 14 June last year, is worth $6.3 million and includes options for extended flight testing of the prototype separate to the JCTD contract now in negotiation.

The company has also revealed that it is developing a small lethal UAV designated Switchblade.

Information released to investors 23 January advises “we are developing a hand-held, lethal small UAS with the ability to eliminate a target quickly and with minimal collateral damage through detonation of an onboard explosive.

“This system would be launched by a single individual and operated through our standard ground control unit. Switchblade is designed to allow the operator to identify a threat on the ground control unit, lock-on to it and neutralise it by triggering an autonomous terminal guidance phase.”

The company says that ongoing US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan “indicates that such a capability would be of great value and could significantly improve the ability to neutralize hostile elements such as snipers, machine guns and mortar launchers”.

Parallel work is underway on a new digital data-link based on a packet switching architecture and optimised for small UAVS.

The company says: “By switching to digital technology from the current analogue technology employed in our small UAS, each small unmanned air system will be enabled to operate as an IP [internet protocol]-addressable node on a broad, wireless network facilitating the transmission of information between and among multiple small unmanned air systems, their operators and other remote parties.

“Other advantages of the switch to digital technology include reduced bandwidth usage for transmissions relative to analogue transmissions, resulting in the ability to simultaneously operate more small unmanned air systems in closer proximity than was previously possible.”

Aerovironment listed on the US NASDAQ technology stock exchange 23 January with 6.7 million shares released at an opening trading price of $22.60.