Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA

Bell Helicopter Textron has unveiled plans to transfer development of its TR911 Eagle Eye tiltrotor unmanned air vehicle (UAV) to an Australian consortia. The move is part of local offset requirements linked to the Australian Army's Air87 armed reconnaissance helicopter requirement.

The new company, to be known as UAV Australia (UAVAL), would be majority owned by Australian investors, including Bell's Australian representatives Helitech Industries, but with the US helicopter manufacturer retaining a minority shareholding.

UAVAL would hold all licences to the TR911 series, and take over final development, test, evaluation and production of the UAV, with Bell providing marketing support. The deal depends, however, on Bell winning Air87.

A complication could arise as BAE Systems is also seeking to have final development of the UAV transferred to the UK. BAE is one of four consortia funded for Watchkeeper studies from the UK Ministry of Defence. Bell is part of the BAE Watchkeeper team, along with Cobham subsidiary Flight Refuelling, which is expected to build the tiltrotor UAV if it is selected.

Helitech last week claimed that the Eagle Eye has a market potential of 80 export sales a year between 2004-2010 based on a basic airframe costing under $1 million per unit without sensors or ground control station. If fulfilled, this would achieve revenues in the order of $100-120 million per annum over the period. However, according to Helitech group general manager, Joe Moharich, "a difficulty we have is in generating hard data on the size of the market for a tilt rotor UAV". Eagle Eye was a losing submission in the US Navy's vertical take-off tactical UAV competition, won by the Northrop Grumman Firescout.

Moharich says Helitech will release bid packages for the TR911 production programme to Australian companies within the next two months. Firms selected would be invited to participate in the construction of two pre-production air vehicles to support international marketing efforts.

The Australia Army's JP129 UAV programme could require a vertical take-off system to be able to operate from unprepared strips. The army has not written a specification but it is likely to need a 150km (80nm) range, able to remain on station for 4-6h and be equipped with electro-optical and infrared sensors, a laser designator and potentially an electronic support measures payload.

Source: Flight International