Friday, Aug. 3, 2007

Sky is no limit for Proxy’s unmanned aircraft industry prospects

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Courtesy of Proxy Aviation
The SkyRaider unmanned aircraft, made for heavy payload missions, is a lead product of Proxy Aviation of Germantown, which markets its aircraft to the defense industry.
Executives with Proxy Aviation Systems of Germantown believe they have jetted ahead of competitors in one of the fastest-growing segments of the aerospace industry.

Worldwide sales of unmanned aerial vehicles, which Proxy develops under contracts with the U.S. Air Force and a ‘‘classified” agency, are expected to reach $2.9 billion this year and rise to $8.3 billion by 2015, according to a recent report from defense market research company Teal Group Corp. of Fairfax, Va.

The pilotless aircraft, which can be used in battle-tough areas such as Iraq when leaders don’t want to risk a manned aircraft, is ‘‘one of the most dynamic growth sectors of the aerospace industry,” the report says.

That’s icing on the cake to Donald Ryan, president and CEO of Proxy. The company recently successfully completed flight demonstrations of its SkyWatcher and SkyRaider aircraft in Nevada.

Proxy’s SkyWatcher is designed for medium-endurance missions, while the SkyRaider is for heavy-payload missions.

Proxy will display the SkyRaider at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Unmanned Systems North America 2007 trade show Monday through Thursday at the Washington Convention Center in the District. The trade group is based in Arlington, Va.

Unmanned systemsat Pax River Monday

A demonstration of unmanned systems, including aircraft from AAI Corp. of Hunt Valley, is scheduled for Monday at the Webster Field annex of Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland. The SkyRaider will be onsite for its first public viewing.

The recent flight demonstration for Proxy’s aircraft involved 49 flight hours that included target searches and weapons employment in temperatures as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the first successful demonstration involving multiple unmanned craft doing a cooperative flight, Ryan said. The four planes communicated through a common network, allowing one operator to manage all of them. The system is designed to operate as many as 12 airborne planes and 20 ground nodes, he said.

‘‘This is the next-generation capability,” said Ryan, who helped found Proxy in 2003. He was formerly president of the U.S. military unit of Smiths Detection, an Edgewood transportation security company. ‘‘No one else has this level of autonomous capability. The expectation of anyone getting close to something like we have is about two years.”

One feature that makes Proxy’s system unique is that it has the built-in intelligence to make independent decisions based on changing conditions without human intervention, Ryan said. The craft also carries the option of being piloted.

Proxy’s team successfully accomplished all of the goals set for the demonstration, Lt. Col. Kent Shin, assistant for security policy and programs for the secretary of the Air Force, said in a statement. ‘‘The Air Force is very pleased with the results and excited about the performance of Proxy’s cooperative flight system under operationally realistic conditions,” he said.

Proxy has obtained about $20 million in venture capital, including funds from L Capital Partners, a New York venture capital company. The company has also received industry recognition, including being named the ‘‘Most Promising Newcomer” company by Unmanned Vehicles magazine in 2005 for its work on SkyWatcher.

Lockheed, Northrop also developing unmanned craft

Other companies designing unmanned aircraft include defense and aerospace giants Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda and Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles.

A team led by Lockheed and Northrop Grumman, which has its electronics systems sector in Linthicum, recently submitted a proposal to design and build a new global communications network for the U.S. Air Force that will include unmanned craft. The multibillion-dollar contract is expected to be awarded this fall.

AAI Corp. of Hunt Valley, a subsidiary of United Industrial Corp., also builds such craft. Its Shadow unmanned system has logged more than 178,000 combat flight hours, most of those in support of U.S. and allied operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a company news release.

To date, 74 Shadow systems have been ordered, including 296 aircraft and 148 ground control stations. In June, AAI received a $39.2 million contract from the U.S. Army for four additional Shadow unmanned craft. The manufacturing work is done in Hunt Valley.

Deployment nextstep for Proxy

Proxy has grown from a handful of employees to 28 full-time workers and additional contractors. Its board includes Thomas A. Corcoran, former president of Lockheed Martin’s electronic sector, and Marv Sambur, former assistant secretary for acquisitions of the Air Force.

The Germantown office is mostly for software design, administrative, marketing and sales functions. Proxy also has hangar space with room for three aircraft at the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg.

Ryan declined to release revenue figures for Proxy, saying the company was generating revenue but was ‘‘still in the startup phase.” He expected some of Proxy’s craft to be deployed by late next year.

Besides the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security and foreign nations are potential clients. The United States will account for 77 percent of the worldwide spending on unmanned aerial systems through 2015, according to Teal’s report.