Easton firm scores with low-cost pilotless plane


April 07, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

EASTON -- Richard Bernstein thinks his little aircraft company located adjacent to the airport here stands to be one of the winners in the Pentagon battle to cut military spending.

Mr. Bernstein is president and chief executive of BAI Aerosystems Inc., a company that produces a small-scale pilotless plane called the Exdrone. While it may look like an oversized model -- it's about 5 feet long, with an 8-foot wingspan -- the Exdrone won praise in the Persian Gulf war when it led the way for the first U.S. ground troops into Kuwait City.

In military terminology the little planes are called UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and are used to carry a miniature television camera aloft for reconnaissance. What makes BAI's Exdrone different is its price of between $12,000 and $15,000. That's about one-tenth the cost of the larger, more sophisticated Pioneer, produced by AAI Corp. in Cockeysville.

"Now that the military is down-sizing and looking for greater value for their dollars, I think we stand to gain," said Mr. Bernstein, who bought the company three years ago and moved it from Rockville to the Eastern Shore.

BAI currently is wrapping up work on a military contract for 110 Exdrones, and last week the Pentagon notified the company that it intends to buy up to 100 more.

Mr. Bernstein said the privately held company posted sales of about $1 million last year and is operating "at a break-even point."

The Exdrone was developed in the late 1980s as part of a !B classified program at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory near Columbia. The aim was to create an expendable vehicle loaded with communications-jamming equip

ment that could circle over an enemy base camp until it ran out of gas and crashed.

The craft was being tested in this role at Patuxent Naval Air Test Center in St. Mary's County when it was suddenly declassified and called into service as a spy plane in the Persian Gulf war.

In Kuwait, the planes were sent up to check out a 20-mile rocky region between the front lines and Kuwait City, explained Jay Willmott, a vice president at BAI. "The Marines thought they were HTC going to have to slug it out with Iraqi troops, but the Exdrone showed that nobody was there. The Iraqi troops had all run away."

Employment at BAI ranges between a dozen and 20 workers who make the planes by hand, according to Mr. Willmott. The 45-pound craft can carry about 30 pounds of equipment, flies at 175 miles an hour and is powered by a chain-saw engine.

In addition to carrying a camera and electronic jamming equipment, the Exdrone can also be equipped with a transmitter to allow it to serve as an "antenna in the sky" for communication links.

Looking ahead, Mr. Bernstein said he sees continued production of the tiny planes for both the military and a number of other federal agencies.

The Exdrone is being purchased by the military to train operators to control the more expensive UAVs. Along this line, the company has been contracted to produce a one-half scale model of AAI's Pioneer to be used as a training craft.

The company is also developing a new model to be called Maxdrone. It will weigh about 200 pounds and be capable of carrying about a 100-pound payload.

The military may not be BAI's only customer. Mr. Bernstein says the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as the FBI, "are looking at Exdrone" for use in law enforcement. He said neither agency has acquired the craft directly from BAI, but it is possible they have made a purchase from the military.

The company also expects to move into the production of components that would be used by other UAV producers.

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