For L-3 Communications, good things come in small packages. As an outfit that ranks itself as the sixth-biggest defence company in the USA, and a leader in sectors ranging from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to secure communications, training, aircraft modernisation, propulsion systems, avionics and satellite communications to name just a few, the acquisition of a $20 million turnover company hardly seems worth noting.

But for its ambitions in unmanned air vehicles, L-3 sees its purchase of Airborne Technologies (ATI) as an important step in establishing a three-pronged approach to the market.

ATI boasts involvement in an impressively broad portfolio of programmes for a small player in the defence contracting world, including AeroVironment's Switchblade mini-UAV, Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and the Lockheed Martin F-16A.

But what makes the Virginia-based firm attractive to L-3 is an expendable UAV built for the US Navy, called Cutlass, for which ATI is the prime contractor, with support from L-3.


Cutlass is a small, foldable sensor vehicle housed in a 91cm (36in) Class A sonobuoy tube for launch by a standard cartridge actuated device from a host aircraft, such as a Lockheed Martin P-3.

Unfolded, the electric-powered aircraft has a 140cm wingspan and can carry a payload of up to 2.3kg (5lb) with an operational endurance of 60min. Working together, ATI and L-3 have already demonstrated the ability to launch Cutlass, fly a route using GPS waypoints, send commands via a portable ground station and navigate without a GPS signal.

ATI joins two other strategic acquisitions, BAI and Geneva Aerospace, that are driving the other aspects of L-3's UAV push - and which earlier this year, were brought together in a single unmanned systems division.

Apart from the small, expendable vehicles segment represented by ATI, L-3 is targeting the tactical unmanned aircraft and medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) segments.

Todd Gautier, who leads L-3's Precision Engagement sector, says of the ATI acquisition: "We've gotten to the point in the maturity of the [Cutlass] system and of the market where it makes sense to work more closely with ATI.

"It is that next step in L-3's movement in the small expendable air system marketplace. This acquisition is just another instance of our strategy, bringing components together, thinking not just about systems, but also about moving into the platform arena of that end of the unmanned market."

Adding ATI to the L-3 portfolio puts the company in a unique position to anticipate the next round of expectations for UAVs, he adds: "Unmanned systems are becoming very, very sophisticated. And that's a very different proposition from when it started. But we're ready."

L-3's entry into the tactical UAV arena came with its December 2004 purchase of BAI and with it, the Viking family of UAVs already favoured by US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which signed a five-year $250 million Expeditionary Unmanned Aircraft System programme deal for the Viking 400 in late 2009.

Manufacturing capability, components and an integrated systems capability at the platform level came with the purchase of Geneva Aerospace in January 2007, Gautier says, making the optionally piloted Mobius project possible.


"L-3 Unmanned Systems is not a huge company so we have to be focused. We can't run full bore in all three of these arenas at once," he says.

With ATI coming into the fold as a known quantity and partner on the small, expendable end of the spectrum and Viking well established in the tactical market segment, expect L-3 to focus more on Mobius in the near term future. The company is flying multiple aircraft and talking to customers, Gautier says.

Based on the high-performance Berkut kit aircraft, Mobius can be flown from the cockpit or the ground and is aimed at disrupting the crowded MALE arena.

"MALE is a fairly challenging market, with lots of competition," Gautier says. "Our approach is different. We intend to provide a platform with unique capabilities and a disruptive price, focused on customers who don't have a dramatic budget."

Source: Flight International