Textron Systems is hoping to expand its successful fee-for-service Aerosonde unmanned air systems business, where it sells “sensor hours” instead of hardware.
It already operates the Australian-made, long-range small UAVs on behalf of the US Marine Corps, Air Force and special operations forces, and also wants to expand that customer base and push further into commercial operations.
Bill Irby, vice-president and general manager of Textron Systems' unmanned aircraft division says Aerosonde is currently supporting military operations in “eight or nine different countries” including Afghanistan, as well a customer in the oil and gas industry.
“We're currently doing 4,000h of fee-for-service each month,” he says. “We already have over 110,000h under our belts on Aerosonde. The customers don’t buy a number of aircraft, they buy sensor hours. It’s up to us how many we produce to meet those requirements.”
The business is also looking beyond Aerosonde, with confirmation of new developments in the small and mid-sized Group 2 and 3 categories. While not turning its back on the latest Aerosonde and Shadow Mark 2 products, Irby says Textron is exploring next-generation designs.
“I can tell you we’re charting a path beyond the Shadow V2 and M2,” he says. “We’re also doing advanced things in the Group 2 world beyond Aerosonde.
“Some of the things we’re working on we don’t want the competition to know anything about. So, I’ll just stay silent on that.”
Irby says there is no desire within the business to push into the heavier classes of unmanned aircraft, where it would compete with the well-established General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predator and Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.
“The reason we’ve stayed focused on Group 3 and below is we see very few little entry points into the Group 4 market and above,” he says. “It’s questionable in our minds if there would be any real return on investment in Group 4 and Group 5.”