SkyWatcher offers a new eye to view threats on battlefield

Md. company completes tests of unmanned aerial vehicle

February 21, 2007|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun reporter

There's a new eye in the sky aiming to give the Air Force a better look at threats lurking on the battlefield.

SkyWatcher, the first of two types of unmanned aerial vehicles built by Germantown-based Proxy Aviation Systems Inc., successfully completed a critical round of trials conducted this month at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the company announced yesterday.

Unlike most drones, which are controlled from the ground, SkyWatcher is based on a kit airplane that also can be flown by a pilot. A SkyWatcher can change position to evade hostile fire, then get back on track. And it can be programmed to take off and land on its own without ground control.

SkyWatcher flies solo or in a formation of up to 12 aircraft at about 20,000 feet and can stay aloft for as long as 15 hours. Armed with infrared imaging and other sensors that are part of Proxy's proprietary system, called SkyForce, it paints a three-dimensional view of the target.

"The unique thing about it is, it provides real-time, 3-D, actionable intelligence," said Don Ryan, Proxy's chief executive.

The sophisticated network allows the aircraft to "talk" to each other. If one drone is shot down, the formation can reconfigure itself to carry out the mission.

While SkyWatcher is a medium endurance plane that can carry 300 to 650 pounds, its sibling, SkyRaider, is a heavy-duty UAV that can carry 4,000 pounds of hardware and weaponry at 24,000 feet and stay aloft for up to 30 hours at a time, depending on the size of its payload.

UAVs of all sizes regularly fly over Iraq and Afghanistan, including those built by AAI Corp. of Hunt Valley. But Ryan was cautious about bringing a new one to market. He said he took his time developing the software to produce a smarter, autonomous UAV with more sophisticated reconnaissance technology.

Proxy, formed in 2003, is financially backed by the venture firm L Capital Partners in New York, though Ryan declined to quantify its investment. It has 30 employees. Before starting the company, Ryan served as president of the U.S. military unit of Smith's Detection in Edgewood.

Oded Weiss, a partner with L Capital Partners, said Proxy's technology, because it requires less human input, reduces risk and error, he said.

"We look for transformation technologies that make a difference," he said.

Proxy has landed two contracts, one with the Air Force for about $2 million and the other with a government agency that is classified, Ryan said.

The test at Eglin involved a SkyWatcher in the air and simulations of three others, which performed scenarios designed by the Air Force. One called for the SkyWatchers to identify a target, mark it with a laser, drop a laser-guided bomb on it and make sure the bomb hit its target.

"It was pretty thrilling," said Ryan, who traveled to Eglin to watch the demonstrations. "It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of investment."

Proxy has been given the green light to conduct further trials at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada in May. These trials will include SkyRaider. Two real UAVs and two simulated ones will be tasked to perform more advanced scenarios than those at Eglin, Ryan said. If successful, Ryan hopes the Air Force will ask the company to conduct trials using four real UAVs.

Lt. Col. Kent Shin, assistant for security policy and programs for the secretary of the Air Force, declined to comment directly, but said in a statement issued by the company that he was pleased with the demonstration and looked forward to more trials this year.

The UAV market is still small, but it is the fastest growing segment of the aerospace industry, according to the Teal Group, a Washington-based defense consulting firm. The group said the market could be worth $55 billion over the next decade.

There is only a handful of companies with UAVs on the market, including AAI. A subsidiary of United Industrial Corp., AAI has an exclusive contract with the Army for a fleet of UAVs called Shadow Tactical Unmanned Air Systems. It also has a common ground control station that can guide a number of UAVs - Shadows and others made by competitors - in the sky at the same time. Proxy said it also has this capability.

Northrop Grumman Corp., whose Electronics Systems sector is based in Linthicum, has a high-altitude, long-endurance UAV called Global Hawk, as well as one called Fire Scout that flies like a helicopter.

Analyst Michael Lewis, who follows United Industrial for BB&T Capital Markets, said the UAV market remains fragmented and there is room for new players. However, he said defense dollars appear to be flowing to the companies with UAVs that have already been proven on the battlefield.

"The Defense Department is going to find the UAV that fulfills its operational requirements," Lewis said.

His firm intends or seeks to do business with United Industrial in the next three months.

Ryan hopes to also market Proxy's UAVs to the Department of Homeland Security and to foreign countries. Down the road, he said there could be civilian applications for them because they can be flown by pilots.

He said the cost of three SkyWatchers, the ground control station and Proxy's sensor technology is about $13 million.

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