Textron Systems Aims At Commercialization

Textron makes a myriad of products for both the military and civilian markets, ranging from power tools to unmanned minesweepers for the U.S. Navy. The company explains its efforts to enter the civilian commercial UAS market.
By Patrick C. Miller | November 25, 2014

Textron makes a myriad of products for both the military and civilian markets, ranging from power tools to unmanned minesweepers for the U.S. Navy. Until recently, Textron’s unmanned aerial systems were primarily known for their use in the military world.

Signaling a shift in its UAS focus, however, the company made its first appearance at The Commercial UAV Show held annually in London. David Phillips, vice president for small- and medium-endurance UAS in Textron Systems Unmanned Systems, delivered a keynote address entitled: “UAS: A Game-Changer in Oil and Gas Security.”

“Textron Systems Unmanned Systems is extremely interested in ultimately segueing into the commercial marketspace,” Phillips says. “Much of what we’re doing right now is positioning for that.”

Textron has long been a fixture in the military world with its Aerosonde and Shadow unmanned aerial vehicles and its UAS ground control systems. But as Phillips explains, the company has always planned to enter the commercial market in concert with the Federal Aviation Administration’s timetable to integrate UAS into the national airspace.

“What we’ve done along the way is put enough attention into our UAS, whether it be size-related or reliability-related or redundancy-related or engine-related, so that a transition to commercial airspace is easier,” he says.

In particular, the purpose-built UAV engine designed and manufactured by Lycoming—a Textron subsidiary—is “the most critical enabler for improved reliability in the system,” according to Phillips.

The market potential for commercial UAV engines is one reason Textron wants to expand into the civilian marketplace.

“Volumes in the military don’t get engine manufacturers too excited, which is why we don’t have too many purpose-built engines in this industry for UAS,” Phillips notes. “So it’s an eye toward the commercial market and the much larger volume potential that the commercial market provides that’s really the end-game for unmanned systems. It’s not much different, quite frankly, than a lot of other technologies that started in the military and transitioned to commercial.”

Just as the global positioning system started as military technology and became ubiquitous in civilian applications, Phillips says UAS electro-optical and infrared sensors, as well as data links, will find commercial uses as they become more affordable.

“What we’ve been concentrating on as the systems integrator and the air vehicle manufacturer is the reliability of the aircraft,” he says. “We then partner with our supply base to make sure that the payloads we don’t develop, but that we integrate, will be commercialized.”

Two of the most important aspects of commercializing a technology are reducing the cost and making it exportable, which is one reason Phillips says Textron considers the oil and gas industry a near-term path for UAS commercialization. In fact, Textron is already flying UAV missions overseas for customers in the industry.

“We’re flying in high-risk areas for our oil and gas customers right now in coordination with their governmental agencies, their equivalents of the FAA and the air traffic control of nearby airports,” Phillips says. “

Because Textron can readily demonstrate the benefits of flying high-risk aviation missions using UAVs in remote, low-populated areas, Phillips believes the prospects are better for commercializing UAS technology with the U.S. oil and gas industry.

“We see commercial applications where it will be a little more difficult to work a certificate of authorization—things like precision agriculture, domestic pipeline monitoring and environmental studies—where it’s probably not as imminent. But the oil and gas stuff, right now, we’re doing it,” Phillips says.

Even though much of Textron’s UAS work has been for the U.S. military, Phillips described some of the civilian projects in which it’s been involved and others that could occur in the near future.

For example, the company was asked by President Tommy Remengesau of the Pacific island nation of Palau to use its UAS technology to identify boats illegally fishing in the country’s waters. Flying a UAV at 15,000 feet where it’s virtually undetectable, the sensors could zoom in on a vessel’s registration number and transmit the information to an operations center in real time. A patrol boat would then be directed to intercept boats operating illegally.

Off the coast of Australia, Phillips says Textron Systems flew an environmental monitoring mission for Chevron.

“We had to show that their offshore drilling operations weren’t impacting the migratory and reproductive activities of sea turtles,” he says. “So we flew for a couple of months, tracking the before and after of turtle tracks. We’d take pictures of the same routes, the same beach lines every day and then apply a software overlay to show that the before and after was the same.”

A potential mission for Textron UAS is creating a “cell bubble” to provide communications over an area in which Internet or cellular connectivity aren’t normally available.

“We can fly an Aerosonde that creates a communications link, increasing the range of handheld radios or cell phones by bouncing the signal off the aircraft in the sky as a link extender. In mining and surveying, there are remote operational areas where a UAV in the sky acting as a communications link is of benefit, Phillips says.

A major advantage of the Aerosonde is its 14-hour endurance, which not only improves on the three- to four-hour flight time of a manned aircraft, but also makes it ideal for missions over linear infrastructure such as pipelines and power lines.

Phillips stresses that Textron is not wedded to using its own UAVs if better options exist.

“Because we do our control systems, if the model says that we don’t need a system of Aerosonde’s capability, then we can bring in somebody else’s smaller, perhaps battery-operated, less-expensive unmanned aircraft system with the same control function,” he explains. “Our customers don’t need to invest in another control system. We just modify the aircraft’s autopilot to interface with our control regime.”

As Phillips notes, many of Textron’s customers are interested in obtaining data at the lowest cost rather than buying and owning a UAS.

“Most of our operations right now are being done on a fee-for-service business model,” he says. “If we’re providing the service, we’re going to provide the most efficient service, even if it’s somebody else’s aircraft that we integrate into our system.”

Textron Systems Unmanned Systems isn’t flying missions only to demonstrate its commercial UAS capabilities, but it’s also forming partnerships and making investments in products, reliability and payload integration which Phillips says will ultimately get the company to its commercialization goal.